Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Genius Musical Murder With In Tandem

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story with In Tandem Theatre

By Russ Bickerstaff
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A Casual Evening’s Musical Murder

Given its relatively humble components, In Tandem Theatre’s final show of the season seems very casual. Actually, it ends up being one of the more seamless musicals of the season—endlessly better than most of the overblown out of town musical trash blowing through the Marcus Center and the Milwaukee Theatre over the course of the past season. In Tandem’s production of Stephen Dolginoff’s Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story shows that the American musical format can have provocative dramatic depth that goes way beyond the campy pretension of most Broadway-style fare. Even Broadway’s attempts at serious drama . . . Les Mis, Phantom and so on are way too overblown to be anything more than fabulously pretentious. The musical theatre format can be intellectually engaging. Thrill Me is a perfect example of what the musical theatre format can do.

The Space

Owing to how new it is, it’s a bit odd to think of In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre as being one of the older of the new Milwaukee theatre spaces. With Next Act opening a new space this coming season at 255 South Water Street and Soulsitce  Theatre relocating to a cozy, little space on 3770 South Pennsylvania Avenue, the Tenth Street theatre is looking more and more established.

The gallery space curated by Miranda Levy has an interesting exhibit of paintings by actor Nicholas Harazin. The young actor most recently made an impression in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s The Subject Was Roses earlier this season. He’s got a really interesting stage presence. Turns out he’s pretty good with acrylic on wood as well. The recurring theme here is the backs of naked woman sitting down—but it’s the way he presents the imagery, that makes it look both classy and moody. Maybe ti was the title of one of the pieces . . . his work reminds me a little bit of Frank Miller’s for some reason. Dark tones and moods. It’s worth a look if you find yourself at the venue prior to the show.

The Stage

The brilliance of Dolginoff’s Thrill Me is that it is a musical that could be produced almost anywhere with very, very minimal production if necessary. This is one that wouldn’t lose too much in tiny community theatre productions with absolutely no budget at all whatsoever. All you really need are two men, a piano player and a space. Everything else is extra. The characterizations of the musical’s two infamous subjects could theoretically benefit from the stage talents of relatively young actors at just about any level of stage experience or talent. It’s one that could be captivating on multiple levels regardless of all the little details.

In Tandem is a solidly funded professional theatre company that operates out of a studio theatre space and their stagings rarely fail to sparkle on some level. Quite often, In Tandem, has been the home to sets designed by actor/director/In Tandem co-founder Chris Flieller. The set of Thrill Me ends up being one designed by prolific scenic designer Rick A. Rasmussen. It has the look of a moody abandoned warehouse—a look which is actually pretty difficult to find in a more naturalistic setting. Just ask Youngblood theatre—evidently they’ve had a bit of difficulty finding a suitably dingy environmental space for their next production.) The place looks suitably dingy, but Rasmussen’s biggest accomplishment here was finding the right textures and surfaces to catch appropriately moody lighting of Holly Blomquist. The whole thing has a very moody, shadowy look to it that feels very environmental. It’s a bit odd to walk out of the space at the end of a show and realize that it’s attached to a church on Wisconsin Avenue.

Much of the action of the play is set in 1924.  Pop music from the ‘20’s is pumped into the space prior to the show to give the whole space a very vintage feeling. The recording has all the surface noise of an old radio broadcast down to the sound of a Chicago radio announcer from the period between songs. Listen closely enough and you’ll recognize the distinct voice of show’s director Chris Fleiller doing a brilliant job of that very specific vocal quality of an old school radio announcer from the golden age of radio.

The Show Itself

Musical Director David Bonofiglio plays piano in the background by way of introduction and the story promptly starts. Adam Estes enters as Leopold being confronted by offstage voices at a parole hearing. They want to know what really happened--why he and Loeb kidnapped and murdered someone decades ago. If the production has any flaw at all, it is the pre-recorded offstage voices sound a little stiff. Everything else is perfect and perfectly captivating.

The story sets-in quite quickly with Joe Fransee making something of a dramatic entrance as Richard Loeb when Leopold begins to tell the tale. The story plays out rather concisely in eighty minutes with no intermission. The story as envisioned by Dolginoff owes much to the 1992 film Swoon—the idea being that Leopold and Loeb were lovers. It’s a compelling idea that Fransee and Estes play out brilliantly. Fransee is in very precise form here as a charismatic manipulator who pushes Leopold into engaging in illegal activities with him, culminating in the eventual kidnapping and murder of “Bobby” Franks. Estes manages the Herculean task of trying to make a soulless murderer actually ook kind of sympathetic—an accomplishment that ballences the whole thing out, making it very, very provocative.

Focusing as it does exclusively on the intricacies of a manipulative relationship between two people over the course of its entire hour and a half onstage, Dolginoff’s musical works on a staggeringly small canvas . . . which is a hugely refreshing antidote to the larger, cheesier shows breezing in from out of town. The intimacy of the tenth street theatre locks in a very powerful emotional resonance that marks In Tandem’s Thrill Me as easily one of the best productions of the season. If you think touring musical theatre is worth inflated prices, if you think touring Broadway musicals are better than local musicals simply because they are more expensive  (and you know who you are if you do) you really owe it to yourself to see this show. With the tenth street theatre being as small as it is, there’s no reason this show can’t sell-out its entire run. Broadway in a box Les Mis may have just breezed through town, but this is real musical drama sith real emotion that is close enough to feel even in the back row.

In Tandem Theatre’s production of Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story runs through May 15th at the 10th Street Theatre on 628 North Tenth Street. Tickets are $20 and $25 and can be purchased in advance by calling the box office at 414-271-1371. 

 

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