Chillin' With Thrillin' Doug Kreeger
At first glance, history books wouldn't seem to be the perfect source for musical comedy librettos. Yet numerous historical characters have been transformed into bona fide musical figures. The obvious case is 1776 where the forefathers of our nation sang and danced their way into our country's independence. Evita told the story of Eva Peron and her rise to power that might have even transcended that of her husband. No one would think that King Henry VIII was anything close to a song and dance man, yet Richard Rodgers turned him into Rex during the 1975-76 theater season. And how could anyone imagine Joan of Arc and her Dauphin singing about the fate of France? Still Goodtime Charlie told their story in rather colloquial terms. Currently on the boards at the York Theater is Stephen Dolginoff's new musical entitled Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story. Once again historical characters have come to musical life under the perceptive direction of Broadway regular Michael Rupert.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb have had their story told many times over in film and print, not the least of which was Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rope. There has been at least one other stage treatment of their twisted lives and many a high school English teacher has been in the position of explaining who these two figures were thanks to an allusion a character makes in Lawrence and Lee's Inherit The Wind--a play that, in itself, is based on an historical incident. Their story is one that continues to fascinate the public and the more recent versions of the tale have become fairly overt about the homosexual aspects of the two characters.
Among the many quirks of Richard Loeb was the sexual energy he achieved after performing criminal acts. At first these acts were arsons but eventually escalated to burglaries and murder. As portrayed by Doug Kreeger in Thrill Me, he is a debonair and Brilliantined smoothie who seems to hold Nathan Leopold in his icy grips. Therefore it was a bit startling when Kreeger walked into the York Theater's green room dressed casually and wearing a battered baseball cap. It seemed hard to believe that this handsome, friendly and articulate actor was the same man who creates such a chilling portrait of one of America's most notorious killers.
A native of Hawaii, Kreeger accompanied his mother to the various theatrical productions that were presented in Honolulu. She preferred to sit in the first row because "she liked to see the actors sweat". After attending a performance of Evita, Kreeger turned to his mother and said, "I can do that". She responded, "Okay, let's do it!" He auditioned for a local production of Scrooge and was cast in the show at the tender age of 10. Kreeger started doing theater on a regular basis and learned from the older actors in the various casts. The actor picked up their professionalism and hopes that he has carried that over to his career.
Kreeger attended Punahou High School (in Hawaiian, "punahou" means "new spring"). It is the oldest private school west of the Mississippi and the largest private school in the nation. Upon being graduated from Punahou, Kreeger traded the island of Honolulu for the island of Manhattan and began his studies at the NYU Tisch School. Two weeks after his NYU graduation, Kreeger was cast as Slightly Soiled (with a Cockney accent) in the National Tour of Peter Pan.
One of the most satisfying places he's worked was the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Kreeger was featured in their acclaimed production of Hair a few seasons ago. "It was a great place to work," he says. "The Bay Street treated the cast well and Sybil Burton Christopher is the lady in charge and she's just great. In addition, I was in the Hamptons for the summer on someone else's dollar!" It was a far cry from the steady stream of hotel rooms and chain restaurants that every actor in a touring show becomes familiar with.
What was the most challenging role Kreeger had tackled prior to undertaking the part of Richard Loeb? "Well, I just came from playing Cain in Children of Eden at the Arkansas Rep. That's another angry, tormented 'heightened stakes' kind of a character. He spends the entire first act mad at his father and upset at God and seeks to get away from his current situation. On top of that, he's singing all these high B flats and rock tenor stuff. So that was a definite challenge."
Kreeger came into the production of Thrill Me on May 1st. He had auditioned but "hadn't heard anything for about a month. With other auditions, you show up, you audition and you let it go. Then the York called me and asked me to come in and I started working." He had two weeks of rehearsal before the first preview. The show had had about five or six different productions around the country and there is already one recording of the score available. Are there any chances of this version being recorded? "They've been talking about it," says the actor, "I've heard murmers of two different producers who are interested in recording it."
Preparing for a role of someone who made headlines many years ago led Kreeger to do a vast amount of research. "I'm really a tangible person," he says, "I tried to find pictures: pictures of the period and these two guys, and their homes and the roadster because it got me into the time period." One image that truly influenced Kreeger's performance was a photograph of Loeb in the courtroom with his legs crossed leaning over and looking at Nathan. It exuded the air of superiority which seemed to encapsulate the entire personality of Loeb. That one picture gave Kreeger a wealth of information on how to play his character. "Then I started doing some research on the two guys and reading their biographies and Clarence Darrow's three day summation, which is poetic and brilliant. In the show I say it's 'literature...just pure literature'. In reality, that's exactly what it is." He also read some Nietzche because that's what motivated Richard Loeb to begin with.
Kreeger's research provided him with the hairstyle he uses in the production. Taking off his baseball cap, he reveals how slicked down his hair actually is. "I use three different things in my hair to achieve this look: there's this gooey stuff I use first to sort of mess it up, then there's greasy stuff for the sides, and the last thing is hairspray. It keeps its shine!" It's a ten minute process the actor goes through and the end result basically amounts to "bullet-proof hair."
Playing a renowned criminal hasn't really bothered Kreeger. "I knew that who he was would come through the rehearsal and all the work and all the research. Maybe I would have been more fazed had Loeb still been alive and part of the process. As far as I know, I haven't met anyone who knew him or was a relative of his. I didn't think about it too much. I just wanted to know who this individual was."
Last season when Hugh Jackman and Jarrod Emich kissed in The Boy From Oz, there were audible groans emanating from some parts of the audience. There are two same-sex kisses in Thrill Me, but they don't provoke any reaction from the crowds. "I don't feel that these kisses are gratuitous. They enhance the power play between the two men. These characters are involved in an obsessive, needy and abusive relationship. The kisses are not homoerotic moments. The first one is Loeb's way of abusing Leopold and showing him who's in control. The second kiss is pretty much the same thing but Loeb is fighting for his life and saying 'I want to keep you here.' I think the fact that the kisses are so specific and important to the story that there has been no reaction from the audiences at all." In fact, the crowds at the York Theater are so absorbed in what they are watching that they do not respond at all until the final bows. It's at that point that they break out into cheers that often result in standing ovations.
During the run of Thrill Me, Matt Bauer left the role of Leopold and has been replaced by composer/lyricist Stephen Dolginoff. Kreeger readily admits that this has affected his own performance. "I think it's bound to just because it's with somebody different, especially when it's a two-man show. I've found some new things now that Stephen is playing Nathan. There's a little more playfulness than I had with Matt. Matt brought an incredible emotional intensity to the part and I think that also transferred into my performance. I think that there's a younger playfulness between Stephen and me that I hadn't found previously. Also, it could also be a product of the fact that I've done it now twice as long."
Kreeger has great respect for his new leading man. "It baffles me that he's able to do what he's done. Just starting with this idea in his head, putting it down on paper, bringing it through all of these regional theaters and now having it in New York must be an amazing closure for him."
Having played one of America's most sensational murderers, is there another historical figure that Kreeger would like to portray? The actor hesitated before answering the question. After a short pause he responded, "Maybe Oscar Wilde. I don't know, maybe it's a mix of his cattiness and his sheer intelligence. I saw Gross Indecency when it was Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater and was just flabbergasted. I love Oscar Wilde." Judging from photographs of Wilde, if Kreeger did essay the role, he'd have much less trouble styling his hair for each performance.
For the present time, Doug Kreeger and Stephen Dolginoff can be seen in Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story at the York Theater. The engagement has been extended throughout the summer but Kreeger will be leaving the cast on July 30th to take part in the New York International Fringe Festival.
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story will run on the following schedule:July 15-17 only: 7/15 at 8pm, 7/16 at 5 pm and 8 pm; 7/ 17 at 3:00 pm. After that: Monday, Thursday and Friday evenings at 8:00 pm; Saturday matinees (beginning July 23rd) will be at 5 PM.
Tickets are $55. Student tickets are available on the day of the performance for $20, subject to availability. Tickets,for which the discount code "THRILL" will slice off $20, are available at Smarttix.com, (212) 868-4444, or in person at the box office on the lower level at Saint Peter's.For further information, visit www.yorktheatre.org.