Originally produced by the History Theatre in 2015, Glensheen returns this summer after touring the state. I missed Glensheen’s original run but caught up with it this weekend in the uncomfortably warm History Theatre in Downtown St. Paul, seriously wear something lightweight. It’s easy to see why the History Theatre brought the show back, it’s an incredibly fun production. I’m not a true crime fan but my wife is, so I knew this would be up her alley and I’d get the true crimer’s perspective. Turns out you don’t need to be a true crime fan to enjoy the show. It’s less about the details of a true crime as it is watching in disbelief the train wreck of humanity that is the main character, Marjorie Caldwell. The amount of suspicious things that have happened around her and the lack of punishment she recieved is mindblowing. It makes for a fascinating story but it also raises serious questions about the criminal justice system…oh wait, we already have those doubts didn’t we? What’s amazing is how enjoyable the whole thing is. A great cast brings us into the past with songs that oddly do not feel out of place in a story as weird as this.
The book for the musical is by Jeffrey Hatcher who has another play opening next week at Park Square Theatre Holmes and Watson. The songs were written by Chan Poling who was a member of the alternative rock band The Suburbs. The two have collaborated on a wonderful piece of musical theatre with Glensheen. Hatcher’s script leans into the craziness of the events without drawing us into that frame of mind. This allows us to view them through our reality thus we see them for the absurdities they are. He tells us the story of Marjorie Caldwell and her husband Roger who conspired together resulting in the murder of her mother Elizabeth Congdon and her nurse. Very quickly Roger is arrested and found guilty but Marjorie proves to be a much harder catch for the justice system. She is a master of staying one step ahead of everyone, but also seems to lose a half step with every one that she takes. Always avoiding the punishment but somehow also losing the prize. Poling’s songs are fun, often witty, sometimes quite touching. Favorites are the hilarious “Conspiracy” performed by Marjorie’s defense team. The defense they mount is so crazy it works. On a sweeter note is “Just You & Me” which is a duet between Marjorie and Roger. It’s a beautiful moment on the surface, but underneath it’s incredibly dark as it’s simply Marjorie manipulating Roger to save herself.
The cast is filled with actors familiar to theatergoers of the Twin cities, most of the performers play multiple rolls. My favorite was Wendy Lehr who plays Elisabeth Congdon and Marjorie’s defense attorney among others. Her over the top defense attorney was a big reason that the song “Conspiracy” was a crowd favorite. Dancing like a man half her age, she was as believable as the elderly matriarch as she was unbelievably outrageous as the Attorney for the defense. Gary Briggle, whom I first encountered as Falstaff in the Rogue Prince several years ago, is another jewel in this ensemble bringing something new and different to each of the multitude of characters he portrays. Suzie Juul, who opens the show as the tour guide at Glensheen, then proceeds to play a plethora of characters with a wonderful quality that endears the audience to her immediately. I’ve seen her in about half a dozen shows now and I think she has what it takes to carve out a nice long career for herself. Dane Stauffer is perfect as the out of his depth, easily manipulated, Roger. Jen Maren holds the whole show together as Marjorie, she perfectly straddles the line between being a smart manipulator and not quite smart enough to get what she wants.
Ron Peluso directs the show with a playfulness that lets the tone shift dramatically from scene to scene while still feeling like a cohesive whole. C Andrew Mayer’s set design is very impressive, recreating a section of the Glensheen mansion including the staircase on which the nurse was murdered. Bill Healey’s lighting design helps to emphasize the tonal changes and is cleverly used for dramatic effect, lighting flashes to create the dark and stormy night in an old mansion which basically screams for a murder. Bold flashes of red to strike a cord that syncs with Marjorie’s evil actions. David Lohman as musical director along with his orchestra are just off to the side stage right, with Lohman’s piano doubling as a bar. It all plays together wonderfully.
Glensheen runs through July 24th at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/2021-2022/glensheen.
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