Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

History Theatre
Review by Deanne McDonald Haywood | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Reasons for Moving and Eleemosynary

Wendy Lehr and Cast
Photo by Rick Spaulding
Glensheen, History Theatre's original musical chronicling Minnesota's own "Crime of the Century," with a book by Jeffrey Hatcher and music and lyrics by Chan Poling, is back. That crime was discovered in 1977, when an 85-five-year-old heiress and her 63-year-old nurse were found murdered in the 39-room Glensheen mansion in Duluth. Former Artistic Director Ron Peluso again directs this eighth production of the musical that originally premiered in 2015. There is a reason the History Theatre continues to produce Glensheen every summer: not only is it excellent, it is darkly comedic and great fun.

The cast, led by Jen Maren as femme fatale Marjorie, are pitch-perfect and never miss a beat in this fast-moving murder mystery. Maren bitingly inhabits Marjorie's deep-seated jealousy of her adopted sister Jennifer, and her moody teenager reactions to everything mother Elisabeth Congdon says ring true. Marjorie's seductions of Roger Caldwell, played by Dane Stauffer, are magnetic and controlled; it is always clear that she has the power. Stauffer lends specificity to Caldwell, the dimwitted hapless husband driven by alcohol, greed and lust.

Twin Cities grand dame of theatre, Wendy Lehr, is a showstopper in multiple roles. Not only does Lehr present a warm portrait of Elisabeth Congdon, the murdered heiress, she delivers a poignant and moving ballad, "Stay With Me," as Velma Pietila, the murdered nurse. Lehr's over-the-top performance as defense attorney "not Ron Meshbesher" (here dubbed Beshmesher) has her interacting with the audience with a handheld microphone a la Phil Donahue or Jerry Springer. Lehr's comic timing and physicality are in full force: her entrance as Beshmesher generates huge laughs, as does her later site gag one-liner as Agatha Christie. She is truly a master clown and a gift to watch.

Ensemble members Ruthie Baker, Gary Briggle, Randy Schmeling, and Sandra Struthers deftly handle Tinia Moulder's witty choreography, most memorably in Meshbesher's hype number at the top of Act 2, "Conspiracy." Vocally, Baker, familiar to History Theatre audiences as Patty from Sisters of Swing, uses her resonant mezzo to great effect, talk-singing her way through her tour as the docent in the opening "Ballad of Glensheen" and harmonizing throughout. Struthers' soprano voice is a little thin, a quality that works well when she plays sister Jennifer who grates on Marjorie. Briggle uses his operatic voice sparingly, letting it all out at choice dramatic moments to tragic and comedic effect.

In a production with such a small ensemble playing multiple roles it is important that costume choices are clear and fluid, allowing actors to differentiate characters by an addition or removal of a costume piece. E. Amy Hill's costume design is deceptively simple and playful, such as the defense team's sequined ties and Beshmesher's coordinating vest.

Ron Peluso's direction takes advantage of every inch of Rick Polenek's evocative and functional set design which gives us the infamous staircase of the Glensheen mansion and a sitting room with "only two chairs," as Marjorie laments. The stage pictures in the first song, such as when the ensemble lines the staircase, are gorgeous, but the constant motion makes understanding the expositional lyrics difficult. Peluso playfully stages several moments in and around the audience, such as Beshmesher standing on a platform or in the aisles, or Marjorie seated at the trial opening her legs to Roger. He uses the coffee table and a stool on stage to provide additional levels as characters often stand on them, as well as using the five-piece orchestra's piano as a literal piano bar.

Chan Poling's music contains a variety of toe-tapping numbers full of witty lyrics that keep the action moving, and several lovely ballads. The production slows in the second half, and could probably benefit from a trim, beginning with the very informative but didactic "Fiction/Truth." "Torch Song," in which Marjorie breaks down, is beautifully and emotionally well-sung by Maren, but seems like a half-hearted beg for empathy as it is well-established from the beginning of the production that she is a psychopath.

I highly recommend taking the time to visit or revisit the History Theatre's current production of Glensheen. This darkly comedic take on a homegrown murder makes for a lively Minnesotan summer night.

Glensheen runs through July 14, 2024, at History Theatre, 30 E 10th St., Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please visit or call 651-292-4323.