Saturday, July 14, 2018

Theater Review: Glensheen, Book by Jeffrey Hatcher, Music and Lyrics by Chan Poling, at the History Theatre

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 setan 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.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Book Review: Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton (1911)

Penguin Classics cover of Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, 1911.

Edith Wharton at her desk.
Poor Ethan Frome! The guy can’t catch a break! His parents’ illnesses force him to return to his family’s farm. After both of his parents die, he then has to take care of his wife Zeena, who is bedeviled by a number of non-specific ailments. Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, comes to the Frome’s farm to help with the household chores and to take care of Zeena. Mattie is everything Zeena is notvivacious, lively, and kind to Ethan. Naturally, Ethan falls in love with Mattie. 

Ethan Frome, the novella by Edith Wharton, first published in 1911, tells the tale of Ethan’s secret love for Mattie. The setting is the appropriately named Starkfield, and Ethan’s farm on the outskirts of the village itself. Starkfield is a barren place, and Wharton’s evocative descriptions of the weather and landscape are superb. Here’s just one example:

“The cold was less sharp than earlier in the day and a thick fleecy sky threatened snow for the morrow. Here and there a star pricked through, showing behind it a deep well of blue. In an hour or two the moon would push over the ridge behind the farm, burn a gold-edged rent in the clouds, and then be swallowed by them.” (p.57)

Wharton does an excellent job of getting into the mind of Ethan Frome. The book is a testament to Wharton’s skill as an author, as she is able to convincingly portray the feelings and emotions of people so different from herself. Yes, that’s what great authors do, but some do it better than others, and here Wharton does it very well indeed.

One thing that Edith Wharton did have in common with Ethan Frome was an unhappy marriage. Born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862, she married Edward “Teddy” Wharton in 1885. It was quickly evident that their marriage was to be passionless. Teddy suffered greatly from depression, and the marriage ended when Edith divorced him in 1912. Perhaps some of Edith’s own feelings of martial dissatisfaction were channeled into the character of Ethan Frome.

Ethan Frome is often compared to Wharton’s 1917 novel Summer, which I reviewed here. Both books take place in rural New England, far away from the New York Gilded Age society that Wharton is so famous for portraying. Both novels include vivid descriptions of the natural landscape, and they both highlight the limited options available to their characters. Summer is a more hopeful book than Ethan Frome, but there are definitely similarities between Charity Royall, the main character in Summer, and Mattie Silver. Both young women are essentially orphanedMattie’s parents are both dead, while Charity has not seen her parents for many years, although her mother is still alive. Mattie and Charity have had limited educational opportunities, and they have few options available to them in their stories. 

The edition of Ethan Frome that I read was the Collier’s paperback from 1987, which featured a ridiculous afterword by noted literary critic Alfred Kazin. First Kazin writes that the book is “an American classic.” (p.131) Then he goes on to say that the novel is actually not as good as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, and, well, Wharton is a good writer, but she’s not as good as her friend Henry James. Kazin writes that “If Edith Wharton was not the equal of her good friend Henry James…she was above all a consummate professional.” (p.134) You could call genre fiction writers like Sidney Sheldon and Clive Cussler consummate professionals, but to call Edith Wharton a consummate professional is just an insult masquerading as faint praise. Edith Wharton was a serious literary writer who also achieved a great deal of popular acclaim. That’s more than just “a consummate professional.” Kazin’s essay quickly becomes tiresome, and it makes you wonder why he’s writing about Wharton at all if he feels so lukewarm about her. Fortunately, Kazin’s essay doesn’t detract from the wonderful writing and compelling story in Ethan Frome.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Movie Review: Elvis Presley: The Searcher, Directed by Thom Zimny (2018)

Promo image for Elvis Presley: The Searcher, directed by Thom Zimny, 2018.

Elvis Presley, recording what became known as the "Comeback Special," June, 1968.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher, an HBO documentary directed by Thom Zimny, is the documentary that Elvis Presley needs and deserves. I think all too often, Presley’s true talents get obscured by his status as a cultural icon. The focus throughout The Searcher is on Presley’s music, which is the reason he became such an icon in the first place. 

The Searcher also takes you inside Elvis’ private life, but it doesn’t dwell there. If you want stories about Elvis’ odd behavior, like shooting guns at television sets, or flying to Washington, D.C. on the spur of the moment to meet President Richard Nixon, you’ll have to look elsewhere. 

The documentary uses Presley’s 1968 “Comeback Special” as a framing device, and Zimny puts forth the theory that the Comeback Special is the closest we ever get to the “real” Elvis Presley. I think that’s a good idea, and it works well. However, despite the fact that The Searcher spends time exploring Elvis’s love for gospel music, it doesn’t include any clips of the excellent gospel medley he performed on the Comeback Special. 

Something I really enjoyed about The Searcher is that we never actually see the talking heads who provide narration. That keeps the focus squarely on Elvis himself, and it means the talking heads never become a distraction. And the people chosen to provide commentary do an excellent job at contextualizing Elvis’ career. They include: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Priscilla Presley, among many others. 

There’s maybe a little too much material that deals with the theme, “Elvis was really good friends with black people,” but I understand why it’s there, given that cultural appropriation is such a huge topic in the arts these days. While Elvis certainly took a lot of inspiration from African American music, whether you’re talking about gospel or rhythm and blues, he mixed all of those influences together in his own special way, and it always came out sounding like Elvis. As he told Sun secretary Marion Keisker, when she asked him who he sounded like, “I don’t sound like nobody.”

There are small quibbles I had throughout the film, but ultimately they are minor next to the impact of the documentary as a whole. But the quibbles aren’t so small I won’t mention them. Why didn’t we get to see any footage from Elvis’ 1957 films Loving You and Jailhouse Rock? While I agree that King Creole was probably Elvis’s finest film, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock were two excellent movies filled with some really great songs. The performance of “Jailhouse Rock” is in some ways an early music video, as it presents us with creative visuals paired to the lyrics, and it’s one of the best examples of Elvis dancing in a movie. 

No details are given on Ann-Margret’s relationship with Elvis during the filming of Viva Las Vegas. That isn’t surprising, given Priscilla Presley’s involvement with the documentary. Priscilla doesn’t want to change the narrative that Elvis was being a perfect boyfriend in Hollywood while hiding her away at Graceland. 

The documentary shields us from the worst of Elvis, and that’s understandable. There are no clips of him from the TV special Elvis in Concert, filmed in June of 1977 on what would prove to be Elvis’s last tour. Elvis in Concert was broadcast on CBS less than two months after his death, but has never been officially released by Presley’s estate. I do think The Searcher would have benefitted from a couple more film clips from Presley’s really crappy movies to show how bad they were. As examples of how bad his movies got, we get clips of “Wooden Heart,” from G.I. Blues, which was a Number One single in the U.K., and “Bossa Nova Baby,” from Fun in Acapulco, which was a Top Ten hit in the U.S. Sure, they are cheesy songs, but they’re nowhere near as ridiculous as Elvis singing “Old MacDonald” on the back of a truck full of animals in Double Trouble. Oddly enough, there’s no mention at all in The Searcher of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which has become one of Elvis’ signature songs.

It must have been tremendously isolating to have been Elvis Presley. But, he also chose to isolate himself. At one point in The Searcher, someone is talking about Elvis performing in Las Vegas and how Elvis would never see the sunlight. Well, that was Elvis’ choice. I’m pretty sure he could have gotten up earlier, gone outside, and then done his two shows for the night. Also, someone says that the audiences in Las Vegas were too fancy for him. I would disagree with that: just watch the footage of Elvis singing “Love Me Tender,” going through the audience and kissing women in Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. The audiences seem pretty thrilled to see Elvis. 

That’s enough of my quibbles and nitpicking. What I really enjoyed about The Searcher is how it presents Elvis as a singer and a musician. That’s really what he was; he just happened to be a singer and musician who made it very, very big. One of the most interesting anecdotes in the film is from one of the musicians who worked with Presley in the 1970’s. He said that Presley had a hard time singing “Burning Love,” because he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to sing the upbeat song. It’s hard to believe, since it was such a great song and one the last rock and roll songs Elvis ever sang. But the song that spoke to him more was the beautiful ballad “Separate Ways,” recorded the day before “Burning Love.” At the time, Elvis was dealing with his separation from Priscilla, and “Separate Ways” was his way of addressing the pain he felt. It made me realize how Elvis really had to feel the lyrics he was singing to give a great performance. Of course, there were many times in his career when he wasn’t feeling the lyrics of the song he was singing (see: all those crappy movies) but those songs didn’t end up being great performances. It’s easy to criticize Elvis for not singing more rock and roll his last few years, but that’s just not where he was at that time. Finally realizing this made me cut Elvis a little more slack for the last few years. 

The Searcher doesn’t shed any new light on Elvis’ death. However, in interviews promoting The Searcher, Priscilla Presley has put forth her own theory that Elvis committed suicide. It really shocks me that Priscilla would say that, since she has worked for decades to build and maintain the Elvis Presley brand worldwide, and suicide wouldn’t seem to be part of the Elvis Presley brand. I do think Elvis Presley was severely depressed the last few years of his life. I think his aversion to the recording studio during his final years shows that he wasn’t feeling well. After a week of recording sessions in December of 1973, Elvis only entered a recording studio once more during his lifetimein March, 1975. Elvis’ 1976 recording sessions were done with RCA’s mobile unit in the Jungle Room at Graceland. Elvis was probably depressed and needed a break from the treadmill of touring that his life had become. But I just can’t imagine him choosing suicide. Elvis was also deeply religious, and I don’t know how he would have justified suicide with his religious beliefs. Of course, no one will ever know for sure. 

The villain of The Searcher is “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis’ huckster manager. Long a figure of criticism among Elvis fans, Parker’s management of Presley from 1955 until 1960 was actually pretty shrewd. Parker negotiated a $40,000 buyout of Elvis’ Sun Records contract by RCA Victor, and also masterminded Elvis’ entry into the movies. When Elvis entered the U.S. Army for a two-year stint, Parker didn’t want Elvis to record during those two years. It was a huge gamble, as pretty much everyone at the time thought that rock and roll was merely a fad, and there was no guarantee that anyone would want to buy an Elvis Presley record two years in the future. It turned out to be a shrewd move, as Presley’s absence from music caused a pent-up demand for new product upon Presley’s return to civilian life in 1960.

From 1961 on, Parker’s management of Elvis was pretty much a disaster. Parker’s theory seemed to be, keep repeating what worked until it no longer makes money. So, during the 1960’s Elvis turned out three mediocre movies a year, with soundtracks to match, and when he returned to live performances at the end of the decade, the 1970’s turned into a never-ending tour of U.S. cities. Apart from five shows in Canada in 1957, Presley never performed outside of the United States. The reason for this? Parker was an illegal alien from the Netherlands who didn’t have a passport. Parker was afraid that if he left the United States, he might never have been allowed back in. (In retrospect, that might have been the best thing for Elvis’ career.) Presley needed challenges to keep himself fresh and on top of his game, and touring foreign countries would have certainly provided him with new challenges. 

The Searcher also made me think about just how revolutionary Elvis Presley must have seemed in 1956. His name was weirdwho had ever heard of someone named Elvis? He looked weirdwho wore sideburns that long? He moved weirdwhat was he doing with his hips on stage? However unlikely a star Elvis Presley may have seemed in 1956, his influence on popular music continues to be deeply felt more than sixty years later.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Book Review: Summer, by Edith Wharton (1917)

Penguin Classics cover of Summer, by Edith Wharton, first published in 1917.

Author Edith Wharton, 1862-1937.
Edith Wharton’s novel Summer, published in 1917, hasn’t achieved the same level of fame as her best-known works, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but it’s an excellent book about a young woman’s first love. Summer is the first book of Wharton’s I’ve read. I enjoyed Wharton’s beautifully descriptive language that was vividly on display throughout Summer. 

The physical landscape is almost a major character in Summer, as Wharton includes many descriptions of the New England countryside where the novel is set. The main character is eighteen-year-old Charity Royall, who lives in the tiny village of North Dormer. The name of the village may be a pun on dormer windows, as Charity’s love interest, Lucius Harney, is an architect. Charity was born “on the Mountain,” in a small enclave of outcasts from society, and was brought “down the Mountain” when she was a young girl by lawyer Royall and his wife. (I didn’t forget to capitalize his first name, it’s never mentioned in the book, and he’s often called simply “lawyer Royall,” as he is in the legal profession.) By the time the novel opens, Mr. Royall’s wife is long dead, and he makes his relationship with Charity super awkward by proposing to her. Charity turns him down, and then asserts her independence by getting a job at the village library so she can earn some money of her own, with the eventual idea of leaving North Dormer. 

North Dormer’s most notable resident was Honorius Hatchard, an early 19th century writer:

“Such had been the sole link between North Dormer and literature, a link piously commemorated by the erection of the monument where Charity Royall, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, sat at her desk under a freckled steel engraving of the deceased author, and wondered if he felt any deader in his grave than she did in his library.” (p.5) 

But Charity’s job and life get a lot more interesting when Lucius Harney comes to town. Harney is an architect who is researching old houses in the area. He and Charity instantly connect when he steps into the library to do some research. However, Charity’s pride is offended when she learns that Lucius has told his cousin, the elderly and wealthy Miss Hatchard, that the books in the library were in bad shape. Charity’s relationship with Lucius is thus a tempestuous one from the very beginning. 

Summer is a very sensual novel, despite the fact that Charity and Lucius don’t share their first kiss until halfway through the book. There are beautiful passages throughout the book, such as this one: 
 “The dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in separate beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses.” (p.50)

Wharton also had a sharp eye for characters, and even minor characters get vivid descriptions: “She sat before her reflection, bending the brim this way and that, while Ally Hawes’s pale face looked over her shoulder like the ghost of wasted opportunities.” (p.81)

One of my favorite sentences in the book was this one: “Charity’s heart contracted. The first fall of night after a day of radiance often gave her a sense of hidden menace: it was like looking out over the world as it would be when love had gone from it.” (p.121) That’s a sentence that just sticks with you long after you finish reading it.

Summer is often compared to Wharton’s other New England novel, Ethan Frome. There’s a small connection between the two books: at the very beginning of Summer it’s mentioned that Charity might attend a boarding school in Starkfieldthe town that Ethan Frome is set in. 

Summer is a superbly written novel, with complex characters and themes. Charity Royall is a fascinating protagonist, and the dilemmas she faces throughout the book illustrate how difficult it was in 1917 for a woman in her position to have any independence.