Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Romeo and Juliet, The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals and Godspell
While virtually every Minneapolitan has seen the Foshay Tower at some point, its namesake has been largely forgotten over time. Open Window Theatre's recent world premiere production of Foshay aims to change that. This two-act musical presents the mercurial rise and devastating fall of a man who in many ways embodied the glory and the grime of the American Dream. With a book by Kevin and Lynn Bowen, and music and lyrics by Kevin Bowen, Foshay makes for a pleasing entertainment and an engaging lesson, both as a bit of Minneapolis history and of the follies of Wilbur Foshay and his ilk, who believe pride and exuberance are all one needs to reach the pinnacles of success.
Wilbur Burton Foshay was born to a middle-class family in Ossining, New York. He hopped around the country, including a stay in Kansas where he wed Leota Hutchinson, whose wealthy family founded the city of that name, and finally brought his family to rest in Minneapolis, which is where we meet him.
In 1917, Foshay establishes a holding company in a single rented room. Noting the rising value of public utilities, he purchases one and uses its increased value to purchase others. His focus is newly formed companies bringing service to rural communities, and in one such purchase of a cluster of companies, hires their director, Henry Henley, to be his right-hand man and eventual vice-president.
Henley has engineering expertise, which frees Foshay up to go full-force on sales, which is his area of special genius. His fortune is not made by providing utility services but by selling stocks in his company, with ad slogans like "Get Rich with Foshay" and "All Your Money, All the Time, on Time" that win a loyal following among everyday working folks who want to get in on the stock market boom of the 1920s. The good times seem to be too good to be true, and of course they are.
The musical's creators found apt places in which to insert songs that advance the narrative, express characters' feelings, and give voice to the onlookers: newspaper reporters, Foshay stockholders, and citizens of Minneapolis enthralled by Foshay's boosterism. The show follows a simple structure, tracing Foshay's rise in Act I and his fall in Act II. An overture set the musical tone, forming a bridge between the gentility of the turn of the century and the onset of jazz and the roaring twenties. A trio of newspaper reporters appeared, bemoaning the absence of hard news stories in Minneapolis. This trio reappeared throughout the show to provide observations on the narrative and to interview the other characters. The three actors also appeared as government inspectors who ransack Foshay's office after he is brought up on charges of fraud in a crowd-pleasing musical number, "Criminal Code: Section 215," and took on other roles as well.
The songs in the score are pleasant and serve their function in musical theatre well, but few are memorable. Foshay's first number, in which he reveals his ambition to his "Name in Lights," was winning and the growth of Foshay and Henley's working relationship and friendship was captured in "You Gotta Have Friends," a solid number dished out with vaudevillian flair by Michael Conroy and Joshua Meltzer. A recurring theme is Wilbur's inattention to his family, and Leota has two sweet songs to express her feelings, "If I Only Knew" an "Why Worry?," though her most potent remark on that topic is spoken to Wilbur: "You care more about the Foshay business than the Foshay family." When the Foshay family heads to church, a choir sang a hymn-like song, harmonizing beautifully, that demonstrated Leota's foundation of faith, but also sent a cautionary note to Wilbur, for the song is titled "Pride."
One of the show's brightest scenes has Foshay and Henley insisting to skeptical French architect Léon Arnal that, yes, he can design and build a 32-story office tower in the shape of the Washington Monument. "It Can Be Done" was aided greatly by Nick Manthe's amusing turn as the architect. The best and most moving song was sung by Conroy late in the show when Foshay realizes that "Time Is a Gift," regretting all he gave up by devoting so much of his life to the illusionary gleam of success.
The production was directed by Amanda Weis, showing a strong sense of the story she was telling, keeping all of its elements moving seamlessly and balancing the tone of a morality tale in which hubris powers a man's rise and ordains his fall, while poking fun at such tropes as the story-sniffing reporters, the cheerful ballyhoo of stock hustlers, and overzealous government agents.
Michael Conroy gave a strong performance as Foshay. At the onset he didn't come across as a likely leading man, but he proved himself in song, dance, and the conviction of his delivery as a man blind sighted by obsessive optimism and an unwavering belief that he is destined for greatness. Conroy was equally persuasive when this same man shows great empathy for laborers, insisting his tower by built by union workers at a time when Minneapolis was staunchly anti-union. Playing Leota, Yvonne Freese had a lovely presence as the calming force in her home who can turn up the heat when her patience with Wilbur's ambitions wears thin. While Leota's focus on faith and family set her at odds with her husband, she also reveals affection for the man, if not great passion.
Joshua Meltzer gave a deft performance and sang very well as Henley. As Foshay's right-hand man he came across as the savvier and more reasonable of the two, but unstintingly loyal to his mentor and friend. Sammi Peck played Henley's wife and Genevieve Clark, a stenographer who has a significant role in Foshay's criminal trial. Peck has a beautiful voice that made her moments on stage memorable. Nick Manthe, Kyle Camay and Aly O'Keefe did fine work as the three reporters, especially in a scene where they are scoping out the jury deliberations. Camay's bluster as the prosecuting attorney against Foshay was full tilt, addressing the jury as if they too were on trial, lest they come to the "wrong" verdict.
This Foshay looked and sounded swell, with Nate Farley's functional scenic design, Marybeth Schmid's well-conceived period costumes, Alex Clark's effective lighting, and Jeremy Stanbary's work on sound effects all serving the production well. The score was played on solo piano by music director Anna Murphy, and while she played with grace and lilt, there were moments when I wished for a fuller instrumentation, especially the first act closer, "The Foshay Tower Is Now Open," based on a John Phillip Sousa march. Lest you wonder why the composer's score borrows from Sousa, it seemed fitting since Foshay commissioned Sousa to write a new march for the grand opening of the tower. Sousa was there himself, leading the band. However, when Foshay's check to Sousa for $20,000 bounced, Sousa withdrew the rights to his composition, which were held until a group of Minneapolis businessman paid the debt to the Sousa estate in the 1980s.
These are the kinds of facts and contradictions that make Wilbur Foshay's story so intriguing. The Foshay Tower remains a landmark, entered on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978, and you can still ride to its observation deck on the 30th floor. In 2008 it became a 230-room W Hotel, ensuring that at least some out-of-town visitors will come to know the name Foshay. For others, this musical can provide a delightful window into the life and times of a singular man. Interest in Foshay will no doubt be strongest among Minnesotans, who will be able to connect a man with the name they have seen perched amid the Minneapolis skyline for all their lives.
Foshay ran July 21, 2023 through July 30, 2023 at Open Window Theatre, 5300 S Robert Trail, Inver Grove Heights MN. For information call 612-615-1515 or visit openwindowtheatre.org.
Book: Kevin & Lynn Bowen, based on an original concept by Tim Colby; Music and Lyrics: Kevin Bowen; Director: Amanda Weis; Scenic and Props Design: Nate Farley; Costume Design: Marybeth Schmid; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Sound Design: Jeremy Stanbary; Arrangements: William W. Brueggemann, David Neville, Travis Anderson; Music Director and Pianist: Anna Murphy; Music Assistant: Jean Orbison Van Heel; Stage Manager: Kathryn Humnick; Assistant Stage Manager: Lauren Volkart.
Cast: Kyle Camay (Reporter 3/Prosecutor/others), Michael Conroy (Wilbur Burton Foshay), Yvonne Freese (Leota Foshay), Nick Manthe (Reporter 2, Léon Arnal, others), Joshua Meltzer (Henry Howe Henley), Aly O'Keefe (Reporter 2/others), Sammi Penick (Genevieve Clark/Bernice Henley/others).