Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Glensheen
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III and Idiot's Delight


Adam Qualls, Wendy Lehr, and Gary Briggle
Photo by Scott J. Pakudaitis
Glensheen is back for a third run at History Theatre. Since its premiere in fall 2015, this homegrown musical has become a must see, sold out its two previous runs, and received a coveted Ivey Award for Overall Excellence in 2016. Since then, I have visited the actual Glensheen, the palatial 39-room home mining tycoon Chester Congdon completed in 1908 on a beautiful spit of Lake Superior shore in Duluth. Since 1979 the home and grounds have been operated as a museum, allowing the public to enjoy this well-preserved glimpse of how the gilded class lived one hundred years ago. I can report that the musical Glensheen makes a great companion to the experience of visiting the home, contrasting the grand life of its residents with the bizarre turns their lives took.

Glensheen is about the bizarre events surrounding the murder of heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila in 1977. 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, falling deeply in 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 process of receiving the inheritance that awaited her after her mother's death. The musical depicts events leading up to the murder, the police investigation that followed, the trials, and their aftermath, with a mix of fact and speculation (the latter identified as such), that makes for an engrossing, entertaining and strangely moving show.

With a book by prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Cousin Bette) and a score by Chan Poling, (an original member of new wave rock group The Suburbs, who now performs in the jazz trio, The New Standards), Glensheen is a well-crafted work of musical theater, with a finely integrated book and score. Its songs advance the story and reveal characters' minds. Listening to the show a second time, Glensheen's score brought to mind the haunting quality of Grey Gardens, another show about bizarre events associated with a famous house.

The entire original cast of Glensheen is back, terrific as ever, with no sign of being bored with their roles. Jennifer Maren, who plays Marjorie Congdon, if anything, more strongly inhabits the spoiled and hateful woman completely lacking a conscience who, without an ounce of feeling, plans her mother's death and pins the full blame on her husband. She was also responsible for the poisoning death of Helen Hagen in order to marry Helen's husband; committed bigamy (she married Hagen without divorcing Roger); and was convicted on two counts of arson, for which she served 12 years in prison. In Maren's hands, Marjorie plows forward as if nothing is wrong with her, it's the rest of the world that stinks. Her strong voice is well suited to her songs, especially presenting her jaded world view in "What Does a Woman Want?," her expression of pleasure in being a "Femme Fatale" to close act one, and "Torch Song," her final lament.

Dane Stauffer is perfect as Roger Caldwell, the dupe Marjorie marries and cons into doing her bidding. Stauffer's take on Roger is funny, but also a bit sad, as he comes to realize how Marjorie has never intended to remain true to him, and has stolen his life in the process. Stauffer is a showstopper displaying Roger's drunken nerves before the murder in "Perfect Little Murder Plot" and in depicting Roger's inability to speak against Marjorie, even at the cost of his own freedom in "Yessiree Bob." Maren and Stauffer are swell enacting their entire ill-fated courtship in "A Match Made in Hell."

Wendy Lehr is a genuine all-star of the Twin Cities stage—the only actor, to date, to receive an Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement. She is back in three roles: highly refined Elisabeth Congdon, speaking in patrician tones but a frank manner with daughter Marjorie; Elisabeth's nurse Velma Pietila, who returned to work from retirement to cover a shift the evening of the murder, and was killed along with Elisabeth; and Marjorie's flashy lawyer, who uses every trick in the book to keep her from being convicted as an accessory to the murders. As Velma, she is given the show's most tender song, expressing the way all we love and value can be lost in an instant, and as the lawyer, she leads the showstopping "Conspiracy" number, complete with sequined attire. Sandra Struthers is winning as Marjorie's adoptive sister Jennifer, who is Elisabeth's "good daughter" and thus a constant irritant to Marjorie. Struthers shows Jennifer's sweet and virtuous nature slowly slip into bitter exasperation as Marjorie gets away with murder—literally—in "No Parole." The remainder of the cast trade off different roles, all doing exemplary work.

This third run maintains the original's effective set, designed by Rick Polenek with enough richly paneled wood, spindled bannisters, and chandeliers to give an aura of Glensheen's opulence. E. Amy Hill's original costumes are back too, somber for Elisabeth, prim for Jennifer, disco-gauche for Roger, and attention-seeking bright red for Marjorie. The five piece orchestra led by Andrew Fleser makes the music sound vibrant, with classy orchestrations by Robert Elhai. Tinia Moulder's choreography once again enlivens several numbers, making the most of the small ensemble to use witty send-ups of production numbers as the ultimate escape from reality.

It is hard to say whether or not Glensheen can make its mark beyond Minnesota. How well known is the story of the Congdon murder—or for that matter, the Congdon family—beyond our borders? It is reported that Congdon fought off John D. Rockefeller, who sought control of the rich iron ore mines in northern Minnesota. Yet, Rockefeller is a household name, while Congdon just a note in regional history. Still, the story of a spoiled, miscreant rich girl, a brazen murder, a husband given the shaft, and the high caliber of Hatcher's book and Poling's score might be transferable to other locales, even without the name recognition.

In any case, we are fortunate in Minnesota to have the treasure that is the Congdon estate, Glensheen, as a landmark that preserves a part of our history and artistry, and fortunate again to have this rollicking musical, which in equal measures celebrates and makes sport of the estate's legacy of old money and twisted minds. Combining our wealth of theater talent and a dandy homegrown story, of the "you can't make this stuff up, folks" variety, Glensheen is one of the most polished and entertaining original shows in memory.

Glensheen continues at History Theatre through July 30, 2017, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets $25.00 - $62.00; seniors (age 60+) $25.00 - $56.00; under 30 - $25.00 - $30.00; students $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Book: Jeffrey Hatcher; Music and Lyrics: Chan Poling; Director: Ron Peluso; Musical Direction: Andrew Fleser; Choreography: Tina Moulder; Musical Arrangements: Robert Elhai; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Kirby Moore; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Production and Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks.

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


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