Sunday, October 22, 2023

"The Boy Wonder" at History Theatre

I had never heard of Minnesota's youngest governor, Harold Stassen, before seeing a virtual reading of the musical The Boy Wonder as part of History Theatre's Raw Stages new works festival a few years ago, when I declared it to be "Minnesota's Hamilton." A progressive Republican elected at the age of 31 in 1938 who resigned during his third term to enlist in the Navy and serve in WWII, and later ran for president a record nine times, Stassen is a perfect candidate for a History Theatre original. Recently retired Artistic Director Ron Peluso wisely asked Keith Hovis, whom one might call the "boy wonder" of #TCTheater musical theater creators, to write his story as a musical. It's finally receiving its world premiere at the downtown St. Paul theater, and it's a wonder indeed. A historical piece that feels timely and relevant, at a time when there's such divisiveness, corruption, and turmoil in our government and political process, it makes one long for a government and elected officials that work for the people instead of for themselves. But this is no staid period piece or preachy sermon, it's a dynamic, modern, exciting musical for today. Well-written, well-acted by a dream cast, with smart and sleek design, it's another in a long line of hit original musicals from History Theatre. You only have one weekend left to catch this fantastic new locally created musical - don't miss it!

The story is framed by Harold's son Glen asking his 84-year-old father, about to announce he's running for president yet again in 1991, why he's still running. We then flash back to journey through Harold's life story, with Glen watching from the sidelines, switching between scenes with a clap of his hands or snap of his fingers, pausing the story to converse with his father. A la Hamilton, we get an intro song about Harold's birth and childhood on his family's West St. Paul farm (there were farms in West St. Paul?), high school graduation at the age of 15, law degree at 22, and election to his first office at 23. We meet his stern but supportive German parents and his wife Esther, who became his partner in life and politics, all while raising Glen and his sister when Harold was off serving. We watch as Harold leads the "young Republicans," runs for governor and wins with nearly 60% of the vote, advocates for American involvement in WWII, puts his money where his mouth is by leaving a successful political career to serve in the Navy, and helps to form the United Nations. This sounds like enough for a lifetime, but Harold was not yet 40, and he was still searching, still running.

Emily Dussault and Evan Tyler Wilson as Esther and Harold
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Taking center stage in a leading role where he belongs, Evan Tyler Wilson shines in the title role with great energy, charisma, and confidence as the self-assured Harold, while showing moments of vulnerability as Harold ponders his legacy, and is as always pure of voice. He leads this dreamy cast which, like most musicals at History Theatre, features a fantastic and hard-working ensemble, most of whom don many costumes to play many roles. As Esther, Emily Dussault elevates the role of "the wife," and her duets with Evan are a dream. #TCTheater favorite Bradley Greenwald is a delight as always as the elder Harold, Harold's father, and more, and #TCTheater newcomer Thomas Bevan plays the always present Glen, his lovely voice making me wish he had more to do. Everyone in this cast has a moment or two to shine: Erik Ohno Dagoberg adds humor as Harold's put-upon campaign manager, Dwight Xavier Leslie wows with a show-stopping number "The Waiting," Jen Maren dons many wigs as Harold's mother and other women in the story, Eric "Pogi" Sumangil is the strong leader of the local Republican party, and Carl Swanson has the thankless job of singing one of Minnesota's most controversial figures Charles Lindbergh's hateful rhetoric of "America First"

If The Boy Wonder is Minnesota's Hamilton, I guess that makes Keith Hovis, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, Minnesota's Lin-Manuel Miranda. In addition to creating many new musicals over the last ten years or so, he's also spent 12 years working in state government, making this perhaps the perfect project for him, or he the perfect writer for this project. The book is tightly written, with humor and humanity; the score is fresh and exciting, modern and interesting, with beautiful melodies, intricate rhythms, and lovely harmonies (and even a cute cowboy ditty). The songs are still stuck in my head and I'd download a cast recording immediately if it where available. Music director Amanda Weis makes it all sound great leading the on stage four-piece band and this talented ensemble.

Evan Tyler Wilson and the ensemble (photo by Rick Spaulding)
With a dynamic staging by director Laura Leffler, the story flows with urgency and momentum. The choreography (by Joey Miller) is modern and exciting, with a theme of running. The set features a revolving circle that's not overused but adds movement at key moments. Election banners hang from the ceiling and the bandstand, and sparse set pieces are gracefully rolled on and off stage. The smart period costumes including a sharp three-piece suit for Harold, WWII uniforms, and a parade of 30s/40s dresses for Esther. (Scenic design by Sadie K. Ward, costume design by Rubble&Ash.)

The Boy Wonder is a fantastic new musical, a historical piece that features issues we're still dealing with today (wanting better representation in government, tax the wealthy, wars on foreign soil), and is aspirational about what our government can and should be. And not only that, it's also hugely entertaining and engaging, and features some incredible performances and a terrific original score. What more could you ask for? Get your tickets now for one of the five remaining performances.