Glensheen

Book by Jeffrey Hatcher, lyrics and music by Chan Poling. Directed by Ron Peluso.

History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.

Tickets: $15-$45, 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com.

“Glensheen” the new musical at the History Theatre opened Saturday to a full house at History Theatre in St. Paul.

Although hard to believe for those of us who lived through the drama and tragedy of the murders at Glensheen, this mayhem plays well on the History Theatre stage. It has all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy, serious drama, conflict between the main character and a superior force along with disastrous conclusions, all choreographed to a catchy musical score.

In June 1977, heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her night nurse, Velma Pietila, were killed in the 39-room Congdon mansion on Lake Superior. Roger Caldwell, Congdon’s son-in-law, was convicted of first-degree murder. All fingers pointed to Marjorie who had an alibi, albeit not have a very good one. Singing lawyers and court cases commence.

His wife, Elisabeth’s daughter Marjorie, was acquitted in a sensational courtroom drama that paved the way for a new trial for Roger. The state feared it might not win again and offered Roger freedom after five years in prison if he would confess to second-degree murder.

Although Hatcher and Poling make Marjorie the center of attention, they do so with a sarcastic nod to her congenitally bad seed persona. The show grabs from the beginning with light opera used as the over-arching comic device. One of the highlights of the musical repertoire is the oh-so appropriate shanty song that alludes to the Lake Superior location, “The Ballad of Glensheen.” The mansion, by the way, is the biggest character in the show, used on the set to best advantage with the infamous staircase front and center. (The demise of the nurse and of Elisabeth Congdon is sophistically handled with nuanced lighting and music).

However, let’s not forget that real people lost their lives here and although Elisabeth is part of the crazy soup that nurtured Marjorie, Velma Pietila, the nurse who was also killed that night was a harmless victim of the deadly crackpot plan. Her part in this is remembered in a melancholy, touching and haunting song sang from the edge of the stage in the second-act.

Marjorie, as played by Jennifer Maren, we learn is deeply flawed in a Grand Canyon sort of way.  Dane Stauffer plays a much better-looking Roger than the real-life Roger but seems to capture the hang dog look and alcoholic aura. We get the message, too, that he is used by his wife to achieve this deadly conclusion.

The small cast is well suited to the material. However the hands down star  is Wendy Lehr, who plays Elisabeth, Nurse Pietila and cross dresses to channel Marjorie’s high-profile lawyer, thinly disguised as Beshmesher. Her range is incredible and her moon walk is beyond compare. A true delight every time she is on stage. However, this is Marjorie’s show and we are led to believe she still haunts Glensheen in her own manner.

Kudos to the History Theatre for tackling a story that defies belief and yet speaks to our collective Minnesota memory.  The show is an absolute blast and not to be missed.

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