Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Glensheen
History Theatre

Also see Arty's reviews of The Realish Housewives of Edina, Henry IV, Part One and Prep


(l-r), Dane Stauffer, Gary Briggle, Ruthie Baker, Jennifer Maren, Adam Qualls, Sandra Struthers and Wendy Lehr
Among those who know their Minnesota landmarks, the name Glensheen conjures up two different sets of images. One is of a beautiful 39-room mansion in Duluth on the rocky shores of Lake Superior, built at the dawn of the 20th century by iron ore mining magnate Chester Congdon as his family home. Today, Glensheen is owned and operated by the University of Minnesota - Duluth as an historic home museum.

The second image is of the grizzly 1977 murder of 83-year-old Elizabeth Congdon, the last member of the Congdon family to live at Glensheen, and her 63 year old nurse, Velma Pietila. An investigation closely charted by newspaper headlines led to trial and conviction of Elizabeth's son-in-law Roger Caldwell. Elizabeth's daughter Marjorie (Caldwell's wife) was charged as a conspirator to the murders, but found not guilty in a trial heavily manipulated by her show-boating lawyer.

And now we have a third image, Glensheen, the new musical playing at the History Theatre. If basing a musical on a gruesome murder strikes you as bizarre, remember how even more deranged material in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's hands turned out in the form of Sweeney Todd. Too, murder figures prominently in a little show called Phantom of the Opera. Of course, while Sweeney and Phantom are fictional, Glensheen tells a story that is, at least in its essential elements, the documented truth.

In spite of that, Glensheen's spirit is fairly light, mining great fun out of the "you can't make this stuff up, folks" twists and turns of the case, and depicting Marjorie as a diva with a heart of arsenic. In spirit it is more similar to Kander, Ebb, and Fosse's Chicago. Marjorie Congdon would have no problem keeping company with Chicago's murderous vamps Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. Under the direction of Artistic Director Ron Peluso, the creators of Glensheen—astonishingly prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and remarkably versatile musician Chan Poling—have whipped this tale of base desires, self-deception and a fabulous setting into an extremely entertaining show that delivers the songs, laughs, and style, if not the heart, of a musical comedy winner. Hatcher and Poling have given us a terrific satire of love and greed among the uber-wealthy, crime stories, and court procedurals, a kind of Double Indemnity played for laughs.

We do hear about the ways in which Marjorie was treated as second rate next to her sister Jennifer. Both Congdon daughters were adopted by Marjorie, who never married. The more Jennifer was lifted up as the "good" daughter, the more overlooked and enraged Marjorie felt. Still, the comical manner in which Marjorie's lust for revenge, her greed, and her total lack of self-discipline (overindulging in both booze and men) make any sympathy for her out of the question. Roger may have a shade more virtue to his credit, but his dim wits and total devotion to Marjorie result in one bad choice after another. The murder victim, Elizabeth Congdon, though painted by daughter Marjorie as cold and heartless, appears, in her brief time on stage and as described in her eulogy, as a kind and generous philanthropist, making Marjorie's protestations appear all the more inane.

The cast has a terrific time lifting what could be stock parts into well-polished performances. Leading the pack is Jennifer Maren as Marjorie. She is in charge of every scene in which she appears, depicting treachery, seduction, and delusion, sometimes all at once. Her brassy voice is well suited for the songs given to her. From her introduction in the forthright "What Does a Woman Want" her eleven o'clock number, "Torch Song, she never fails to deliver.Playing beautifully into her scheming clutches is Dane Stauffer's Roger Caldwell. Stauffer gives Caldwell enough pluck and vanity to convince us he is capable of doing Marjorie's calculated bidding, yet makes him naïve enough to believe that he has no idea how he is being used. His voice too, is ideal for this part, and the songs Stauffer shares with Maren—"Match Made in Hell," "What to Do," and the faux long song "Just You and Me"—play especially well.

The indomitable Wendy Lahr appears in not one, not two, but three key featured roles. As Elizabeth Congdon she is stately, but not given much to do. As Velma, Elizabeth's nurse and fellow murder victim, she scores a bullseye with a song that is the one truly touching moment in the entire show. Most memorable, though, is her turn as Jennifer's lawyer, a master at manipulation of juries and the media. If Marjorie would be good company with Chicago's femme fatales, this guy could work side by side their lawyer, Billy Flynn. Lahr makes hay out of the act two opener, "Conspiracy."

Sandra Struthers gives a solid performance as goody-goody Congdon sister Jennifer. Her slide from saintly patience to exasperation in "No Parole" gives her an opportunity to be funny, and she plays it to the hilt. Ruthie Baker, Gary Briggle, and Adam Qualls play assorted minor characters, and all contribute winningly to the ensemble.

Jeffrey Hatcher's literate and witty book is well meshed with Chan Poling's score. Poling, known as a long time Twin Cities rock musician, and a jazzman with his current group "The New Standards," has composed a true musical comedy score, with songs that serve the book and the characters. While there are no stand out tunes or moments of high sophistication, the score does exactly what a score for a musical must do: propel the story and entertain. Robert Elhai's inventive orchestrations make splendid use of a versatile five-piece orchestra under Andrew Fleser's direction.

Typical of such modestly scaled musicals, Glensheen does not have a lot of dancing. Tinia Moulder's choreography does add sparkle on several occasions, most notably "Conspiracy" and Dane Stauffer's solo turn in "Yessiree Bob (Part 2)." The stately Glensheen staircase, with its elegant carved banister, forms the backdrop for all of the scenes, a reminder that the tale, even when Marjorie is scraping for money to stay afloat, is set in a context of enormous wealth. The costumes are well suited to the various characters, with Roger Caldwell's lounge lizard duos making a terrific visual joke.

To this day, visitors touring Glensheen may not ask questions about the murder or take photographs on the stairwell where Velma Pietila was killed. Even decades after the facts surfaced, an aura of mystery is attached to the case. That, along with combination of high drama and low morals that are the fodder of prime time soap operas, make the musical format a logical way to tell the Glensheen story.

Glensheen continues at The History Theatre through October 25, 2015. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $25.00 - $45.00; students 6 —18, $15.00; senior (age 60+) discounts available. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Book: Jeffrey Hatcher; Music and Lyrics: Chan Poling; Director: Ron Peluso; Musical Director: Andrew Fleser; Musical Arrangements: Robert Elhai; Choreographer: Tinia Moulder; Scenic Designer: Rick Polenek ; Costume Designer: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Designer: Barr Browning; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Kirby Moore; Production Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Stage Manager: Megan West; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson.

Cast: Ruthie Baker (Docent, others), Gary Briggle (Trustee, others), Wendy Lehr (Elisabeth Congdon, Velma Pietila, Marjorie's lawyer, others), Jennifer Maren (Marjorie), Adam Qualls (Cop, others), Dane Stauffer (Roger Caldwell, others), Sandra Struthers (Jennifer Congdon Johnson, others).


Photo: Scott J. Pakudaitis


- Arthur Dorman


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