Stephen Dolginoff's 2003 musical strolls down murder's memory lane to the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the two precocious law students whose thrill-killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks shocked Jazz Age America. The show opens with a middle-aged Leopold (Stewart W. Calhoun) telling his parole board how he earned a life-plus-99-year sentence. In a bold artistic choice (or possibly from budgetary necessity), librettist and composer-lyricist Dolginoff compresses the 1924 crime into an 85-minute story populated only by the killers. Gone is lawyer Clarence Darrow, whose brilliant trial-summation speech spared the two the death penalty, and gone is the crime's Roaring Twenties Chicago backdrop, which could have provided an ensemble's worth of colorful characters. Instead, we're drawn into an erotically claustrophobic relationship between the needy Leopold and his bullying, Nietzsche-reading lover, Loeb (Alex Schemmer). Calhoun and Schemmer have just the right chemistry to make this asymmetrical relationship believable – and strangely endearing at times. Dolginoff's songs, guided by pianist Michael Paternostro, tend to be spare but affecting declarations, veering, at times, between Sondheim and Simon & Garfunkle territory. “Nothing Like a Fire,” sung by both as a warehouse they've torched on a whim goes up in flames, captures this musical's ebulliently dark mood. Director Nick DeGruccio knows the difference between thrill and shock, and keeps the evening from lapsing into Grand Guignol. He is aided by Steven Young's moody lighting plot and Tom Buderwitz's set, which is dominated by spiraling platforms that rise above a blood-spattered cyclorama. Havok Theatre Co. at the HUDSON BACKSTAGE, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. (enter on Hudson Ave.); Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru March 2. (323) 960-4429. -Steven Mikulan
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