Thrill Me – The Leopold and Loeb Story opens at MGAC
Add two handsome lovers, Nietzsche, a roadster, a grisly and gruesome “crime of the century” thrill killing, and a parole board. What do you get? A musical, of course!
First performed at a New York City fringe theater festival in 2003, Stephen Dolginoff’s Thrill Me – The Leopold and Loeb Story ran off-Broadway in 2005 to critical acclaim. Since then it has played in cities across the USA as well as in Australia, Brazil, Greece and Japan. Currently, it’s playing in Kansas City and in Seoul, South Korea.
On September 17, Theatrical Tendencies launches its inaugural season with the Milwaukee premiere of Thrill Me – The Leopold and Loeb Story at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center.
Founded by David Carter and Mark Schuster, Theatrical Tendencies is Milwaukee’s newest stage company and the only one dedicated to LGBT relevant theatre. Its opening production, Thrill Me, offers audiences a rare opportunity. Along with Dolginoff’s musical, the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center itself will be part of a total immersion experience. Within MGAC’s walls, Theatrical Tendencies will create a 1920’s warehouse environment and present a historic exhibit of the Leopold and Loeb story.
Often praised by critics, Milwaukee Gay Arts Center’s intimate space provides an ambiance well suited for a variety of theatrical settings. For Thrill Me, the late 19th century storefront venue with its high ceiling, cream city brick wall and hardwood floor is a made-to-order set.
Milwaukee Gay Arts Center’s executive director Paul Masterson explains, “when David Carter asked me about the art show that would be up during Thrill Me, I described the work and that I thought it would suit the show. Then David proposed the warehouse concept. There wasn’t much need for discussion; it was obviously a perfect match. So, I rescheduled the art show to accommodate Theatrical Tendencies’s production.”
A conversation with playwright Stephen Dolginoff
A lot has been written about Leopold and Loeb. Playwright, composer and lyricist Stephen Dolginoff’s version is uniquely different; aside from being a musical, it’s a dramatization, not a documentary. Dolginoff spoke with many people who knew Leopold as an older man after his release from prison in 1971. However, none of Leopold and Loeb’s immediate family or friends survive from the period of the murder. Dolginoff recreated the lovers’ relationship based trial transcripts and newspaper accounts.
Asked about the cast of two, the characters of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Dolginoff explained his purpose. “Thrill Me is solely about those characters. In fact, there is little mention of others in the play. It’s an intimate view of a relationship. It’s about power, codependence and love. This is the fabric of their relationship,” Dolginoff said.
Two characters also provide intimacy “You take an audience on a specific journey when they only get the point of view of two people. It’s about a love relationship gone wrong. By limiting the number of characters I could liberate myself from simply creating another documentary,” Dolginoff said.
The play’s success relies on that intimacy. Dolginoff mentioned the current run of Thrill Me in Seoul, South Korea. “It’s a giant hit. The audience is 98% 20-something women. They’re obviously relating to the love story. The show is in a mainstream theater and the advertising showing the men kissing is on buses, billboards, in the subway – everywhere. It’s having its effect on the public consciousness I’m sure.”
When asked about the critics who suggest the work is a modern opera, Dolginoff shrugged. “I wrote it as a traditional musical about a non-traditional subject. Still, it’s more than a typical musical where the dialogue is interspersed with songs. In Thrill Me’s the songs tell the story,” Dolginoff said.
Marty L. McNamee performs the role of Richard Loeb, the criminal mastermind. McNamee is a familiar face on the Milwaukee stage. He appeared at the Skylight in Plaid Tidings last winter. While rehearsing for Thrill Me, McNamee is performing in Hula Hoop Sha-Boop at the Stackner Cabaret.
“Thrill Me has been on my radar for years. It’s a creepy show. My purpose is to make audience care about the characters. Given the subject matter and the seemingly frivolous love affair, it will be up to us, the actors, to portray Leopold and Loeb as human beings who really existed. Their love was dysfunctional in a Bonnie and Clyde way. Their conflict is in part about their being gay in 1924 - perhaps being criminals was their way of being something worse than gay,” McNamee said.
“Musically, it’s a piece with meat on its bones. I’m used to doing more conventional musicals. I truly enjoy that. But, Thrill Me’s music creates the characters. I need to be a great actor in addition to a competent singer to communicate the role. It’s exceptionally challenging.”
Matt Walton plays Nathan Leopold. Walton is currently pursuing his BFA in Musical Theatre at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He already has an impressive resume’ but this role offers something new.
“It’s the scariest role I’ve taken on – scary because Nathan’s real. My usual roles are the typical, larger-than-life characters of the classic musical. Playing Nathan I have to be true. And, unlike the typical musical, the action takes place around a gruesome event. Again, it’s all true,” Walton said.
Walton finds it hard to talk about his character. “Nathan Leopold is difficult to figure out. Actually both the characters are ambiguous in terms of who’s the bad guy. Nathan is more a realist yet he goes along with Richard, the criminal mind, because he loves him – they even make a contract. Richard seems out of touch. He over-analyzes. The love affair is just a part of his plot,” Walton said.
Reflecting on the music, Walton added “the score is inseparable from the play. The music is modern and flowing without a lot of slow spots. The underscoring sets the tone. It leads into the songs. It can seem like one continuous song.
Theatrical Tendencies’ Thrill Me – The Leopold and Loeb Story opens on September 17th and runs through October 2nd at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center, 703 South 2nd Street in Milwaukee’s historic Walker’s Point neighborhood.
Performances are on Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm. Thrill Me runs approximately 90 minutes without intermission.
FMI or tickets visit Theatrical Tendencies’ website www.theatricaltendencies.com.
An interview with Theatrical Tendencies’ co-founder David Carter
QUEST: Why did you and Mark Schuster form Theatrical Tendencies?
David Carter: Mark and I had been doing shows around town for other organizations in various capacities, most recently at Soulstice Theatre in Saint Francis. It wasn’t often that we were able to do shows that had meaning to us. We knew the process was much more fulfilling when we really cared about the material. The next logical step was to form our own company and do shows that resonated in our souls.
QUEST: How long were you and Mark at Soulstice?
David Carter: Mark brought me in to Soulstice about 5 years ago to light The Sum of Us. He’d been on the board for several years before that. Working with Char Manny and Soulstice is what gave us the confidence that we could make Theatrical Tendencies work. Starting from scratch on a shoestring budget and growing into a respected company is the path we are on. We gained tremendous insight into that path at Soulstice and owe Char a debt of gratitude.
QUEST: How did you select Milwaukee Gay Arts Center (MGAC) as Theatrical Tendencies’ home?
David Carter: We were comfortable at the MGAC. I had done a number of shows there and knew the space would work for us. Mark did The Sum of Us at MGAC in 2006 after its run at Soulstice. It’s a natural tie to our mission of diversity and offers the LGBT community an opportunity to see their lives represented on stage.
QUEST: Why did you decide to open Theatrical Tendencies’ inaugural season with Thrill Me – The Leopold and Loeb Story?
David Carter: Mark and I talked forming our own theatre company for several years. Thrill Me was always at the top of our list of plays we wanted to produce. We really like its darkness and the very real story it tells. Our best work has revolved around relationship stories. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s relationship is the heart of Thrill Me.
QUEST:How does Thrill Me fit your mission?
David Carter: Our mission is to present diversity. Diversity comes from many places. Its shape has changed and evolved over time. In looking back at our history through a subject like Leopold and Loeb we can explore how attitudes of the times play a role in shaping the destiny of young people. Would Leopold and Loeb have had the same outcome if they had lived in today’s more accepting times? Having to hide who you are from society can have an incredibly adverse affect on how you live your life and the choices you make. Life isn’t always pretty. We need to remember some of the ugly history in order to move on to prettier, happier times.
QUEST: And the play’s message?
David Carter: There are many messages in Thrill Me. Most will be personal to each audience member. At its core, Thrill Me is a relationship story. The actual murder is not the focus. The story revolves around Nathan and Richard’s passion, their anger, their lust, their desires, their brilliance, and their very young and naive ages – both were 19 at the time of the murder.
The message involves how people react to being in love, particularly a one-sided love. It poses the question, how does being in that kind of relationship influence your ability to make choices? We have to consider the answer in light of the closeted lives they were living. There are lessons to be explored. Some performances will be followed by Talkbacks to give the audience the opportunity to discuss all of this, the psychology involved and the relevance to our lives.
Mad Man in the Mil
Artist James R Reinke at MGAC
By Paul Masterson
Milwaukee - Wisconsin artist James Russell Reinke has a particular passion. It’s evident in his art. Whether lino prints, oils, 3-D pieces or great expanses of tapestries done in inks and acrylics, there’s a common theme: the male nude.
Like centuries of artists before him, Reinke focuses on his subject with ardor, admiration and attention to detail. He expresses maleness unapologetically. He’s quirky, carnal and candid. He’s all about the joys of genitilia, strapping broad-shouldered angels, recumbent cowboys and mythological minotaurs.
His favorite works are the Greek classical nudes and it shows. “The idealized male form enamors and amazes me. Greek nudes represent the symmetry of disciplines - mind over the body and body over the mind. The figure is the form. I enjoy Michelangelo for these same reasons. Most of my work does not contain the discipline, but does express the obsession to run like an athlete or to run your hands over an athlete. Through my art I have tried to make the works that I want to see or hang,” Reinke said.
Reinke’s works, especially the lino prints, recall the German Expressionists but without the Angst. The cuts are raw. They deconstruct the figure to its literal bare bones. Pecs and abs, gluts, lats, serratus define their strength in bold lines. The sensuality and sexuality is reminiscent of Picasso, Chagall and Warhol. Still, there’s a contemporary twist, a dose of Haring and Mapplethorpe and ultimately an innocence of purpose that is purely the artist’s.
His artist’s statement is a bit more serious. ”Art is a luxury that few can afford. Art as a luxury is grounded in politics. Politics very rarely exhibit the love of man for his fellow man. The Sistine Chapel with man in all his stunning glory is a product of the church. Commercialism and advertising have overtaken much of man’s creativity. The chase of the dollar foreshadows the need of expression.
The desire to live beyond this lifetime, to be seen or known as creating beauty in this world can only come through art. This form, our shell is truly all we have. From the primitives to the future, our bodies are what carry us and hold us together. The physical is the spiritual.
My work and I are products of our time in history. For me that includes the influences of HIV/AIDS, gay rights, racism and sexism. Expression is empowerment. Art history has covered so much ground. I can only try to fill in gaps or recreate to expand its accessibility”
Mad Man in Mil – the Art of James R Reinke runs through Spetember 10 at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center, 703 South 2nd Street in Milwaukee’s Historic Walker’s Point neighborhood. Call 414-383-3727 for gallery hours.
HAIR “What a Piece of Work Man Is”
By Brody Hess
HAIR was everywhere on July 16th as Sunset Playhouse opened o a full house. HAIR was in the aisles, on the stage and on our minds. With the current war dividing our nation, the topic of the Vietnam era and its divided society was pertinent and poignant.
With the left and right at odds and liberation movements on the rise, the nation was in utter chaos. HAIR reflects this desolate scene while taking you into the hearts and minds of high-schoolers torn between family and friends.
The result is tragic. And yet the spirit of the show is liberating.
This personal freedom offended audience members who were ignorant to the nature of the show and walked out at intermission (the song “Sodomy” may have provided a hint). It’s been over four decades since HAIR’s first production yet not enough progress has been made for people to understand and appreciate it. Ironically I witnessed others purchase additional tickets at the same time. The polarization was telling.
Certain members doubtlessly were offended by the attitude towards homosexuality and the trans-gender culture. One male character openly fawns over Mick Jagger and another is a transvestite. Conservative audience members were bound to be shocked. If only they followed the characters who had no qualms about love for all people regardless of their orientation.
For 1968, this was lurid. Today we thankfully have more people who understand and accept the LGBT community for who we are.
But understanding wasn’t the only part of the show that was captivating. I got lost in the beauty of the story, the flow of time fleeing me. Alan Piotrowicz’s Lighting Design was mesmerizing. The pulsating stream of colors in the acid trip scene were beautiful and appropriate.
Sara Wilbur Price’s choreography was spot on. This show calls for rhythmic movement throughout. Price nailed it.
Pat Hopkins’ drumming was also a treat. Also, J. Michael Desper’s bare-bones set was well suited to the show.
Unfortunately, there were times when the chorus outshone the soloists. Pitchiness was frequent for some. There was also the inevitable technical glitch when Sheila’s (Hannah Gaffney) microphone failed. However miking this utterly talented singer was pointless. Without her microphone she easily sang over the band and was audible to the entire audience. I understood her un-amplified voice better than others’.
Katherine Duffey (Chrissy) was absolutely hilarious. Her charm and warmth brought necessary counter-point to a very heavy story. She artfully embodied her character, making me laugh throughout the entire performance.
Ryan Stajmiger, Zach Woods and Stuart Mott (Claude, Berger and Woof, respectively) also did an outstanding job. Neither overbearing nor dull, their performances were compelling, cohesive and complimentary.
Ashley Levells’ singing was a strong part of the show. Her soulful voice set the stage for the show and grabbed the audience with the opening number.
Without a doubt, Jacob Bach’s “Margaret Meade” was the most humorous part of the show. Eccentricity at its finest.
All in all the show was incredible. I honestly hadn’t cried that much in years. This production of HAIR certainly showed me “What a Piece of Work, Man is