|Poster for the original production of Glensheen, 2015.|
|The cast of Glensheen. Front row: Gary Briggle, Jen Maren, Sandra Struthers. Back row: Dane Stauffer, Ruthie Baker, Adam Qualls, Wendy Lehr.|
|Glensheen, the Congdon mansion in Duluth, Minnesota.|
The moment in the musical Glensheen when you know it’s going to be something special occurs early in the first song, “The Ballad of Glensheen.” After Adam Qualls sings the line, “the poodle barked at three AM,” Gary Briggle pulls out a dog hand puppet and energetically barks. Then you know you’re in for a fun ride.
Glensheen is the name of the Congdon estate in Duluth, one of the most famous mansions in Minnesota. It’s owned by the University of Minnesota Duluth and has been open for tours since 1979. Glensheen is also the site of one of the most famous crimes in Minnesota: in 1977, Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila were both murdered in the mansion.
Glensheen the musical examines the murders and their aftermath. Glensheen was first produced in October of 2015 at the History Theatre. It’s now back for its fourth run. Featuring a book by Jeffrey Hatcher, and music and lyrics by Chan Poling, Glensheen is a wonderful musical, full of sadness, humor, and amazing twists and turns. The songs are so memorable; there are several that regularly get stuck in my head. I’m still hoping for an original cast album.
Luckily, each time Glensheen has been performed at the History Theatre it’s been the same cast, and these seven actors do a marvelous job at bringing the story to life. Jen Maren stars as Marjorie Congdon, the troubled adopted daughter of Elisabeth Congdon. Maren reveals the dark soul of Marjorie through some excellent songs, including “Torch Song.” Dane Stauffer is the hapless Roger Caldwell, Marjorie’s second husband, who was found guilty of the murders in 1978. Stauffer brings humor to Roger’s dimness, and he also gives pathos to a man who is caught up in events larger than himself. Stauffer also has several of my favorite lines in the play. After introducing himself as Roger Sipe Caldwell, he explains his middle name: “It’s an anagram for spy, if you spell it with an ie instead of a y.” And as the trustees of the Congdon financial trust express exasperation with Marjorie’s free-spending ways, purchasing a horse ranch and expensive riding outfits, Roger keeps repeating, “Marge loves horses!” Wendy Lehr portrays the widest range of characters, from Elisabeth Congdon and Agatha Christie to Marjorie’s male defense attorney. For me the emotional highlight of Glensheen is Lehr’s brief turn as Velma Pietila, the murdered nurse, as she sings “Stay with Me.” It’s a moving tribute to the victims at the center of this bizarre story.
The four other actors are all credited with being “the ensemble,” but that doesn’t mean that they are only minor parts. Each of them weaves a vital part into the fabric of the show. Sandra Struthers portrays Jennifer Congdon, Marjorie’s perfect sister, who was adopted from a different family than Marjorie’s. Struthers is the sweet counterpoint to the bitter Marjorie, and she gets to show her range with the song “No Parole” in the second act. Ruthie Baker plays a variety of roles, beginning with a Glensheen tour guide who tries to hold back the rest of the cast, portraying tourists who want to take photographs on the staircase and ask nosy questions about the murders. (Until very recently, Glensheen tour guides famously didn’t address the murders on the house tour.) Baker gets to duet with Adam Qualls on the song “A Murdering in June,” which shows us the reporter and city desk writer who break the story of the murders. Qualls plays numerous parts, from a nosy tourist to a bartender, a reporter, a detective, a Congdon trustee, and a member of a jury. He does it all with aplomb, skill, and humor. Gary Briggle, in addition to performing the poodle barks, also essays many roles, from a minister to the lead Congdon trustee, and an attorney. A veteran of the Twin Cities theater scene, Briggle adds class, style, and superb vocals to every role he plays.
There’s only one set—an interior at Glensheen, with a staircase in back. This set transforms into courtrooms, automobiles, a prison cell, a newspaper office, and all of the other locations where the action of the play transpires. It’s marvelously simple and effective.
Glensheen is directed by Ron Peluso, the longtime Artistic Director of the History Theatre. Peluso has helped bring to life a vivid, funny, and moving work of art. If you have the chance to go see Glensheen before it closes, go do it and experience an amazing evening of theater.