The “Music Man”-like tale of a scoundrel who might be redeemed by love, “Lord Gordon Gordon” rescues the fascinating-but-forgotten saga of an actual 19th-century bunco artist who, pretending to be a Scottish dealmaker, swindled average Minnesotans, then elite New Yorkers, then unwitting Canadians, almost starting a war between the United States and Canada in the bargain.
Fun stuff, to be sure. Abetted by Chan Poling’s zippy songs, the wry script by Jeffrey Hatcher — “We’re Minnesotans,” says one character, “we must accept our grim fate and sorry circumstances” — sets it all up beautifully. And director Ron Peluso employs period-appropriate tropes of melodrama (stock characters, exaggerated performance style) to make the world premiere of this musical, set in 1869, feel pleasingly familiar.
Mark Benninghofen is enormously charming as Gordon (or whatever his name really was), and Jennifer Baldwin Peden is delightful as the droll, practical and inconveniently married New Yorker he romances. (Is anyone planning a local production of “The King and I”? Because Peden as the “I” is a thing that should happen.)
Maybe even better is the chorus, which keeps emerging from surprising corners of Eli Sherlock’s witty Victorian set. In the manner of “A Little Night Music,” they’re a roving band of narrators who frequently pop out of chorus mode and into the costumes of one of the two, three or nine other characters each of them plays.
There must be a lot of speedy ripping of Velcro backstage to account for these dazzling character shifts, but the array of people involved in the story begins to present problems for “Lord Gordon Gordon.” We get where this musical is going fairly early: scoundrel/comeuppance/redemption. That’s fine, because the fun is in how we get there. But there is a whole lot of story and not all of it is easy to follow, particularly when Gordon vanishes for large chunks of the second act and the musical loses its true north.
After the polished pleasures of the first act, in which Poling skillfully integrates musical styles including a tango, the second act feels scattershot and undisciplined, as if “Lord Gordon Gordon” has suddenly become a farcical sketch comedy show. Usually it’s entertaining — especially a German/Spanish/Italian opera parody that shows off Gary Briggle’s ace comic timing and sterling vocal cords — but it doesn’t always fit. And I don’t know what to tell you about a trio sung by presidents Grant, Lincoln and Washington.
All of this hit me when Peden sang a lovely aria called “Everything’s Changed” and I thought: Yeah, it sure has. I sat down to watch a rollicking musical comedy, and now I’m not sure what it is anymore.