Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Seven Keys
Yellow Tree Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of A Year with Frog and Toad, The Language Archive, and The Lilies of the Field

Christopher S. Collier, Sarah Dickson,
and Charles Fraser

Photo by Michael Dufault
Yellow Tree Theatre, in collaboration with Frosted Glass Creative, has brought forth a recently announced addition to its 2023-2024 season, a mystery-farce called Seven Keys. It turns out to be a terrific time at the theatre. That isn't to say it's the best play I've seen, and it certainly isn't the most thought-provoking or important–that is, unless you consider it important to spend two hours laughing your tuchus off. Personally, that's a great reason for me to go to the theatre any day.

Seven Keys was written by Charles Fraser, one of the Twin Cities' busiest theatre artists and a principal in Frosted Glass Creative. Fraser adapted the current play from Seven Keys to Baldpate, produced back in 1913 by George M. Cohan, the man who inspired patriotism through the first World War with "Over There," and who is the only actor to have a statue on Broadway in his honor. I never had the occasion to see a Cohan show before, so in addition to having a lot of fun, Yellow Tree's offering of Seven Keys provides an indirect opportunity to delve into theatre history.

Seven Keys to Baldpate was a hit for Cohan, who adapted the play from a 1912 novel of the same name by Earl Derr Biggers. If you are curious about Biggers, he is best known for the Charlie Chan series of mystery novels, replete with offensive racial stereotypes, but there is none of that here. Cohan fashioned the stage adaptation of the novel Seven Keys to Baldpate as a farce, with an assembly of every archetypal character from the mystery genre he could get his hands on, and made sport of tying together an array of double-crosses and other arch plot devices.

Fraser has taken Cohan's work and upped the ante on the farce quotient by having the play's eleven characters performed by just three actors–himself among them–calling for a rapid-fire succession of quick costume changes. Sometimes the clever staging allows one actor to be two characters simultaneously. The mayhem Fraser has created is directed by Peggy O'Connell, who must have worked on the show in a track suit to keep up with all the quick switches, to say nothing of rapid-fire repartee among characters.

The mystery begins with a successful author, William Magee, wagering a large sum against his well-heeled friend Hal Bentley that he could write a complete novel in just twenty-four hours if he could be in a secluded place totally free of distractions over that time span. Bentley sends Magee to a summer hotel he owns, the Baldpate Inn, located on Baldpate Mountain in some northeastern rural zone within vacationing range of New York City. Because it is winter and the hotel is closed for the season, Bentley contacts the hotel's caretaker couple and instructs them to meet Magee there and give him the key so he can lock himself in, thus keeping would-be intruders out.

Believing he has the one and only key to the hotel, Magee locks himself in and sets out to write his novel. You are woefully new to this kind of thing if you haven't guessed that his expectation of twenty-four uninterrupted hours to win his bet will be thwarted. Thwarted he is, by a succession of stock characters that include a feisty gal reporter, a corrupt politician, a repressed matron, a railroad mogul who plays dirty, a smart-talking femme fatale, a mad hermit, and a slow-witted cop. Oh yes, there is also talk of a ghost.

The plotting is far-fetched to the extreme, but we quickly forgive that as we are regaled by smart one-liners and delightfully hammy performances by Fraser, Christopher S. Collier, and Sarah Dickson. Credit must go straightaway to costume designer Jaclyn Mack, who created colorful and complete costumes–not a mere change of hat or jacket–for each character and, one can only assume, provided enough quick release snaps and hooks to enable the actors to change from one to another almost as quickly as Clark Kent changes to Superman in a phone booth. O'Connell's direction has the action mapped out with a precision that keeps the play aloft, as light as a souffle that never falls.

Fraser harvests the most laughs as Mrs. Rhodes, a matron somewhere between her mid-twenties and late fifties, who is on the scene as chaperone to an effervescent and ambitious young reporter, an assignment she carries out with grim fortitude. Fraser also delights as four other characters, each a different type. He applies a spot-on wise-guy accent and attitude to the first of the intruders, giving the impression of being a gangster. Collier plays the writer Magee with facile charm as he becomes ever more flustered by this onslaught of company, and confused by the elaborate web of connections among them. That keeps Collier on stage for most of the play, but he does have a chance to take on the role of Mayor Cargam, succeeding splendidly in a scene where both men (Magee and Cargam) are in a brawl.

I was especially impressed by Sarah Dickson for her greatly differentiated portrayals of four different characters: Mary, the reporter; Myra, the femme fatale; Kennedy, the police chief; and Mrs. Quimby, the caretaker, who has an amusing repartee with Mr. Quimby (one of Fraser's roles). Dickson's chameleon-like performance and the clever costuming make the contrast between Mary and Myra particularly marvelous; if the program had said that two different actors were playing the two roles, I'd have readily believed it.

Franz Hall has designed a spiffy set that features the front desk and lobby areas of folksy Baldpate Inn, complete with a fireplace. Plenty of doors enable the exits and entrances that make the play work. Sound designer Dana Anderson adds some nifty touches, including the sound of Magee typing away when he manages to do some work on his novel, while lighting designer Norm Tiedermann provides opportunities for the long shadows required of any self-respecting mystery or, as in the case, a send-up of one.

I will observe that the first scene of Seven Keys moves a bit slowly, but hang on, because the pace picks up after that and before long we are on a roller coaster that evokes laughs rather than shrieks. Will you have deep discussions about the themes and character conflicts? Highly unlikely. There are other plays that will offer that to you. I encourage theatregoers in search of a well-oiled, giddy, and winningly lighthearted time at the theatre, dispensed by a production that aims to lift us out of our dark shadows and be held aloft by the power of laughter, to dash up to Yellow Tree Theatre for Seven Keys.

Seven Keys runs through May 19, 2024, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. For tickets and information, please call 763-493-8733 or visit

Playwright: Charles Fraser, adapted from the play Seven Keys to Baldpate by George M. Cohan, based on the novel by Earl Derr Biggers; Director: Peggy O'Connell; Set Design: Franz Hall; Costume Designer: Jaclyn Mack; Sound Designer: Dana Anderson; Props Master: Calyssa Hall; Lighting Design/ Technical Director: Norm Tiedermann; Intimacy/Violence Director: Mason Tyer; Stage Manager: Michael Dufault; Assistant Stage Manager: Arcadia German; Production Manager: Brandon Raghu.

Cast: Christopher S. Collier (William Magee/Mayor Cargam), Sarah Dickson (Mrs. Quimby/Mary Norton/Myra Thornhill/Chief Kennedy), Charles Fraser (Mr. Quimby/Thomas Hayden/Mrs. Rhodes/ Peters/Hal Bentley).