Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Glensheen is a stately mansion in Duluth, completed in 1908, on the craggy shores of Lake Superior, where the true-story of a 1977 double murder took place. Lake Superior, in turn, is especially enticing in summer, with its beautiful beaches and bluffs, cafes and cabins, and a climate air-conditioned by the big lake. If you can't make a trip up to Lake Superior's shores, a ticket to Glensheen is a good way to partake in the "away from it all" feeling, though in this case the turf is a brightly written, melodic show with razor-edged wit, and "superior" refers to the caliber of performances among a cast of seven that includes most of the originators of the roles in Glensheen who have faithfully returned year after year.
Having missed this season's opening weekend–ironically, I was in Duluth on the shores of Superior–I caught the next Thursday evening performance, which was a near sell-out. After all these many returns, Glensheen is still a hot ticket, and why not? It is an artfully crafted mystery tale with a book by prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who has a passel of other mysteries among his credits, all the more eye-popping because it is true. Chan Polling's finely tuned score serves the twists and turns of the story with a range of musical styles that carry whiffs of past musical theatre masters but remains wholly original. Director Ron Peluso gave up his long tenure as artistic director of History Theatre this past year, but happily is back to steer Glensheen on the boards, bringing just the right touches of intrigue, satire, madness, and even a moment of deeply felt tenderness as they are needed.
Glensheen is about the 1977 murder of heiress Elisabeth Congdon, then cited as "the wealthiest woman in Minnesota," and her nurse, Velma Pietila. Elisabeth's son-in-law, Roger Caldwell, was convicted of the murder, though it is widely believed that the mastermind behind the crime was his wife, Elisabeth's adopted daughter Marjorie Congdon Caldwell. Marjorie had a history of mental illness and a psychopathic lack of scruples. She ran through money like water, most recently acquiring massive debt after purchasing a horse ranch in Colorado. When the family trustees refused to advance her any more money to cover her debts, the answer was simple: speed up the receipt of the inheritance that awaited her after her mother's death.
The musical takes us step by step, like a good procedural, from a foundation that spells out Marjorie's place in the family with her mother and sister Jennifer, also adopted by the never-married Elisabeth ("Two Little Girls"), to finding in Roger Caldwell, the perfect dupe to abet her immoral ambitions ("A Match Made in Hell") to being chastised by the "Trustee Trio" and feverishly figuring out "What to Do." The show smartly shifts perspective to the press coverage of the event ("A Murdering in June") and the police investigation ("The Twelve Clues of Glensheen"), then to Roger's harrowing time carrying out the "Perfect Little Murder Plot" and back to the source of all the villainy, Marjorie, who finds fulfillment at last as a "Femme Fatale."
The second act takes us through Marjorie's trial for aiding and abetting Roger, and its aftermath. Along the way it gives us some wonderful turns, with Marjorie's defense lawyer instructing the audience in the proper handling of "Conspiracy," adorned in glittery vest and striking disco poses ala Saturday Night Fever made hilarious by the Wendy Lehr's pull-out-the-stops performance. This is followed by another star turn, this time by Dane Stauffer, stupendous as Roger Caldwell, splendidly hoofing in front of the jury with hat and cane in the rousing "Yessiree Bob." Later, Stauffer shows Roger in a different light, fervidly facing the downward plunge Marjorie has led him to ("Latrobe Lament"), while Lehr reappears as the nurse whose death was collateral damage, breaking our hearts with the simple reality that loss can come without warning to any of us ("Stay with Me"). Jennifer has a turn in the spotlight, with Sandra Struthers doing a swell job gradually going mad as she narrates the unending tale of her sister's malevolence in a very cleverly staged bit that harkens back to their childhood as girls together.
While Lehr, Stauffer and Struthers give terrific performances, and the rest of the ensemble–Ruthie Baker, Gary Briggle and Randy Schmeling–pitch in with strong work, the brightest light in Glensheen is Jen Maren as Marjorie. From her first moment on stage to her last, she is an unstoppable force, taking glee in her inability to be anything but bad. Whether describing her greed-driven yearnings as the most natural of instincts ("What Does a Woman Want?"), taking center stage as a "Femme Fatale," twisting Roger, once more, around her conniving fingers ("Just You and Me"), or appropriately bringing her saga to an end with a blazing, eleven o'clock "Torch Song," she has us in her thrall. Maren uses every twitch of her mouth, tilt of her chin, and lift of her bosom to tell us a bit more about this woman.
The design team is largely the same crew that created the excellent original production, with Rich Polenek's set providing a fine facsimile of one corner of the elegant 39-room mansion. E. Amy Hill's costumes continue to be effective, from Elisabeth's moneyed primness to Roger's self-consciously studly duds to Marjorie's attention-grabbing red apparel. C. Andrew Meyer's sound allows the actors and score to be crisply heard, along with some well-timed claps of thunder and the blare of traffic speeding by. Bill Healy's lighting design adds lightning to the thunderclaps and provides the range of moods from sinister to giddy that are a part of Glensheen.
The five-piece orchestra led by music director David Lohman plays the music with finesse, enhanced by Robert Elhai's classy orchestrations. Tinia Moulder's choreography enlivens several numbers, making the most of a small ensemble to use witty send-ups of production numbers in which reality is checked at the door and life becomes a matter of song and dance.
As I have said before, for all of its strengths, Glensheen might not play so well beyond Minnesota. The wealth of the Congdons, the elegance of their estate–which remains a much-visited museum attraction–and the notoriety of the murders are well known lore in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but would others care? Perhaps. The story of a spoiled, miscreant rich girl, a dimwitted husband, and a grisly murder, makes for a good yarn, wherever the setting. Further, the send up of the judicial system and parallels between courts of law and showbiz did pretty well by Chicago. Given the high caliber of Hatcher's book and Poling's score, I hope someday that Glensheen gets a chance to show its stuff beyond our state's borders.
Meanwhile, Glensheen continues to be beloved by its Minnesota fans and looks to become as enduring as the historic estate for which it is named. Combining our wealth of theatre talent and a dandy homegrown story of the "you can't make this stuff up, folks" variety, Glensheen remains a polished and entertaining original show.
Glensheen runs through July 23, 2023, at History Theatre , 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets $30 - $74; seniors (age 60+) $25 - $69; under 30 - $30 - $50; students $15. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Book: Jeffrey Hatcher; Music and Lyrics: Chan Poling; Director: Ron Peluso; Choreography: Tinia Moulder; Music Director: David Lohman; Musical Arrangements: Robert Elhai; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Design: Bill Healey; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Kirby Moore; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Deirdre McQuillin.
Cast: Ruthie Baker (Docent, Trustee, Copy Girl, others), Gary Briggle (Trustee, Poodle, others), Wendy Lehr (Elisabeth Congdon, Velma Pietila, Marjorie's lawyer, others), Jennifer Maren (Marjorie), Randy Schmeling (Trustee, Reporter, Cop, others), Dane Stauffer (Roger Caldwell, others), Sandra Struthers (Jennifer, others).