Runestone! A “Rock” Musical Brings a Historical Mystery to Life at the History Theatre in St. Paul

Photo by Rick Spaulding

Originally set to premiere two years ago, Runestone! A “Rock” Musical was definitely worth the wait. The musical tells the story of the Kensington Runestone (KRS) which was found by Olof Ohman on his farm in 1898. This is the History Theatre and as crazy as everything sounds in the play it’s all based on fact. But the question at the heart of this story is what are the facts? Originally thought to be evidence that medieval explorers from Europe had made it to MN and carved the stone in 1362, later Runologists claim that the stone is a hoax and that Olof carved it himself. And the pendulum of popular opinion swings back and forth over the century plus since its discovery. The Musical has Olof as the main character who fights for his reputation even after is death. History Theatre has assembled a cast of fantastic voices to sing life into this telling of a piece of believe it or not MN history. We learn a surprising amount of detail while being entertained. You might think a show about the KRS would be filled with humor, and you are correct, but there is also a tragic side that is well represented as well.

Mark Jensen the writer of the book for this musical actually grew up not far from where the KRS was discovered. Runestone began as a play, which Jensen wrote over twenty drafts of, then History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso suggested he turn it into a “rock” musical. Composer Gary Rue came on board and the play became the musical. Jensen says that a compelling script kept eluding him and it’s easy to see why. As a straight play there is so much contradictory information that it would be hard to find the dramatic through line. A musical form allows you to step out of the reality and into characters minds, and jump forwards and backwards in time, playing out different possible scenarios. It would be interesting to know if those twenty drafts of the play contained as much humor as the musical, or if that change gave Jensen the freedom to infuse as much humor as he does. Either way the musical feels like the correct path for this story. It is in some ways so absurd and in other ways so tragic that to really pull off the tonal changes and to make the story as entertaining as it is the musical was the missing link Jensen needed to realize his story.

The cast is lead by Sasha Andreev as Olof, whose singing voice overcomes some other obstacles his casting creates. Olof is supposed to be a humble hardworking Swedish farmer, but Andreev looks like Cary Grant only posher. I’m quite sure Andreev could look the part, but his costume, hair, and makeup all seem to emphasis a metro-sexual quality that is incongruous to the role. That combined with an accent that sounds more Irish than Scandinavian and there was the potential for a real trainwreck of a lead performance. What wins the audience over is his powerful and pitch perfect singing combined with his acting, through which no matter how much evidence the KRS deniers throw at us, we believe Olof when he says he did not carve the stone himself. Somehow it works – it shouldn’t, but it does. By Act II you have stopped wondering what this well groomed man is doing around all these small town farmers. Maybe it helps that he’s dead and so it’s easier to accept a well dressed ghost, think Cary Grant in Topper. Still none of that matters as he has the voice of an angel and particularly in the second act when things get a little darker at times, his acting obfuscates his appearance.

The entire cast is amazing vocally. Everyone with the exception of Andreev plays multiple roles, all of them doing a really nice job of making their various roles distinct. Special note goes to Adam Qualls in his main role as Hjalmar Holand, an early supporter of Olof’s who turns the tide back in favor of the KRS being authentic. His comic performance is full of throwaway lines that are tossed off perfectly. My favorite moments were his song at the top of Act II “Rock This House, Part One” and his debate with his opposite number in the KRS is a hoax camp Johan Holvik. Peyton Dixon plays Holvik and deserves special mention as he is replacing a cast member who is out ill. He carries the script with him but still gives a fully realized performance, and does a great job under less than ideal conditions. Two other performers I just have got to point out are Ivory Doublette as among other roles Olof’s wife Karin and Kiko Laureano who’s biggest part is as Olof’s daughter Amanda. As I said the entire cast sounds great, but these two really brought the house down when they had the spotlight.

The show is directed by Tyler Michaels King, whom I know primarily as a performer. Here is evidence that there probably isn’t anything in the theatre that he can’t do well. I thought the show was well paced and staged. Michaels uses the entire theater having characters enter and exit at times from the back of the theatre. I loved the placement of the band onstage, for most of the time they are behind what looks like an animal skin with a giant “R” on it. It looks like something that might have been used by Native Americans to tell their stories, which I thought was a nice thematic tie in with the Runestone. At times the curtain is raised and we see the band and other times the screen is lit from behind and we see the silhouettes of the band. The lighting in that instance and so many others by lighting designer Karin Olson is inspired. It changes the appearance of the set at times in unexpected and evocative ways. The set design by Joel Sass is wonderful. I particularly like the corn stalks on either side that somehow seem to disappear and then suddenly with a change of Olson’s lighting they become a focal point. Last but not least music director Brian Pekol and his band deftly provide the musical support for their vocalists to soar upon.

Runestone! runs through May 29th for more information and to purchase tickets got to Can’t make it in person purchase tickets to stream the show from May 24th through May 29th here streaming tickets.

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