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REVIEW: Murder’s Still Got It in Glensheen (History Theatre)

Last fall, the Minnesota History Theatre had a sell-out hit with its original production of the musical Glensheen. Fortunately, I and many other theatre goers who missed the show the first time around are lucky to see it in a summer reprise of the show. Under the swift direction of Ron Peluso, Chan Poling’s catchy lyrics and Jeffrey Hatcher’s witty dialog is a well-crafted show that is a blast to watch.

For a quick understanding of how this show works, think of the musical Chicago and then apply it to Duluth, Minnesota.  Glensheen is based on a most unlikely source for a musical comedy: the tragic murder of 83-year-old Elizabeth Congdon (daughter of a wealthy mining magnate) and Velma Pietila (Condon’s night nurse). Roger Caldwell, the husband of Marjorie Congdon Caldwell (one of Elizabeth Condon’s two adopted daughters), was arrested and convicted of the murders. Marjorie was prosecuted but was acquitted thanks to her attorney’s conspiracy theories, much of which centered on the fact that some of the damning evidence was discovered by a private investigator working for members of Condon’s family who disliked Marjorie.

During Marjorie’s trial, evidence came to light questioning the accuracy of fingerprint evidence that was used to convict her husband Roger. As a result, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Roger’s conviction and sent his case back for retrial. Prosecutors eventually worked out a deal where Roger pled guilty in exchange for a promise to reduce his sentences to the five years he had already spent in prison. This is a well-known story in Minnesota: the murders and trials occurred when I was in college and were well publicized around the state. I was a newly minted attorney when Roger’s conviction was reversed and over the years knew the prosecutors involved in Marjorie’s two Minnesota criminal prosecutions, and had cases against both Roger’s and Marjorie’s defense counsels.

With some slight deviations, the musical presents a faithful retelling of the sordid events. But even it did not do so, who would care – it is that entertaining! As in the musical Chicago, there are times when the characters step out of character and do a song and maybe even a dance with spiffy little tunes.

The cast of Glensheen.
The cast of Glensheen.

The production uses an ensemble cast with most of the cast playing multiple roles. The star of the show is Jen Maren, who plays the psychopathic Marjorie with charm and humor.  Maren is always in command whenever she is on stage, whether seizing that command with a look, a turn, or getting a drink. Dan Stauffer humorously plays the hapless, alcoholic Roger who is seemingly unaware that he has been used and then discarded by Marjorie. Wendy Lehr, who plays both murder victims, also does a great standup comedy routine as Marjorie’s defense counsel. Sandra Struthers plays Marjorie’s “good” sister Jennifer with an often biting satire. Other cast members playing the multiple roles include Gary Briggle, Adam Qualls, and Ruthie Baker. All three play their roles with a seamless flow without missing a beat. Baker is especially humorous when she plays the jury foreperson that has a celebrity crush on Marjorie.

Under the musical direction of Andrew Fleser, the orchestra appears on stage and brilliantly weaves the music in an out of the show. Barry Browning’s scenic design centering on the staircase at Glensheen where Pietila was murder proves to be an effective set to provide multiple locations for the scenes.

If the show has any flaws, it happens at the end when it goes on about two songs too long before the finale. But they are two really good songs and, structurally, it would help if they were performed earlier in the show. This show should be a must see for those familiar with the murder and the trials, but the show will provide an extremely fun and fast paced entertainment even for those who know nothing about the tragedy.

Glensheen plays through July 31 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Bev Wolfe