Sunday, June 30, 2024

"Glensheen" at the History Theatre

Last night I saw History Theatre's smash hit original musical Glensheen for the 5th time, and loved it as much as I did when I saw the Raw Stages reading over ten years ago. It's unheard of for a local theater's wholly original musical to be this successful, coming back year after year (after year) and continuing to sell tickets. While History Theatre has created many fantastic original musicals that I hope to see again (including I Am Betty, which returns this fall), for some reason (or many reasons) they struck gold with Glensheen. Specifically, dark musical-comedy gold. When you take Minnesota's most famous and strange murder mystery* (the brainchild of retired Artistic Director Ron Peluso), add a script by one of Minnesota's most prolific and talented playwrights Jeffrey Hatcher, and a score by beloved local musical Chan Poling, how can you go wrong?! At this point it's pretty easy for History Theatre to mount this show - pull the gorgeous set and costumes out of storage, plop the original cast on stage, and press go. But the great thing is, the show still feels fresh and exciting, with this dreamy cast still (and probably even more) fully embodying these characters that they know so well. You can read my full review of the original production here (which has remained largely unchanged), or scroll down for ten reasons to see Glensheen (again), continuing through July 14.
  1. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it doesn't get much stranger than a wealthy heiress murdered in her stunning mansion on the North Shore by her son-in-law (allegedly) as directed by her adopted daughter (allegedly) in a weird and bungled way that involves a silk pillowcase, a candlestick, a stolen coin in an envelope, a garment bag, and lots of money.
  2. The campy fun tone of the show is pitch perfect, bringing out all of the sordid details of the story in a deliciously entertaining way.
  3. Underneath that campy tone is a respect for victims (the most poignant moment being the nurse's song, someone who was truly in the wrong place at the wrong time), and if you look a little closer, you might see some threads about the dangers of unchecked greed and untreated mental illness.
  4. Chan Poling's fabulous score never gets old, including the haunting anthem "The Ballad of Glensheen," the absurd love song "A Match Made in Hell," Roger's drunken romp through "Perfect Little Murder Plot," and Marjorie's final moment "Torch Song." (Arrangements by Robert Elhai, Music Direction by David Lohman leading the five-piece onstage band.)
  5. Our lead actors have only gotten better with time. Jen Maren's performance as Marjorie is  simply perfection. Part femme fatale, part sad little girl, part maniacal murderer and arsonist. She's well-matched in Dane Stauffer's Roger, a character as ridiculously funny (getting some of the biggest laughs of the show just with a look or a slouch) as he his pitiably tragic.
  6. Wendy Lehr. Enough said. But to say more, a #TCTheater legend who brings the house down with her performance as the slimy defense attorney who is not named "Beshmesher," the physicality of this show-offy character a stark contrast to her personification of the frail Elisabeth. Watching Wendy shimmy, prance, robot, and twerk through "Conspiracy" is worth the price of admission alone.
  7. Everyone in this seven-person (mostly) original cast is to die for (pardon the pun), and they truly work as an ensemble. In addition to the above we also have the talents of Gary Briggle, Ruthie Baker, Sandra Struthers, and Randy Schmeling (the only non-original, but who's been with the show for years). So many characters, so many great moments for all of them.
  8. Ron Peluso, who shepherded so many amazing local original plays and musicals through development and into full production in his 27 years as Artistic Director, returns once again to direct this piece. It's so geniusly staged, utilizing a small cast performing multiple duties, going into and out of the audience making us feel a part of the story, juggling various locations and times and stages of reality, and balancing the hilarity with the tragedy of the story.
  9. Rick Polenek's set really looks like a mini-Glensheen, complete with (half) a grand staircase, rotating bookshelf, and stately furniture. E. Emily Hill's costumes capture the '70s/'80s era, Marjorie dressed in bold red and black, the ensemble in basic pantsuits with pieces added to play their many characters.
  10. If you've never seen it before - isn't it time you find out what all the fuss is about? The Minnesota-made (and -inspired) Glensheen truly is a must-see (at least once) for Minnesota music-theater fans.
photo by Rick Spaulding of the 2022 cast

*For more about this tragic and bizarre true story, I highly recommend the book Will to Murder, written by a Duluth crime reporter, the police detective who investigated the case, and the lead prosecutor of the murder trials.