The spirit of “Chicago” (minus the jazz hands) is alive and well in “Glensheen,” the new musical about the 1977 killings at the Congdon mansion in Duluth.
Cheeks full with irony, the musical by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and composer Chan Poling opened Saturday at a sold-out History Theatre in St. Paul.
Really? A comedy about two innocent people being killed during a bungled burglary? Doesn’t that seem a little callous?
Indeed, but that same winking attitude made Kander and Ebb’s murder musical a ripping success. And make no mistake, “Glensheen” is a success. Hatcher and Poling exploit the bizarre circumstances and the absurd characters that informed the tragedy. Under Ron Peluso’s direction, we have an engaging, swiftly paced musical, dotted with big performances, hummable melodies and forays into cabaret and fantasy.
In June 1977, heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her night nurse, Velma Pietila, were killed in the 39-room Congdon mansion on Lake Superior. Roger Caldwell, Congdon’s son-in-law, was convicted of first-degree murder. His wife, Elisabeth’s daughter Marjorie, was acquitted in a sensational courtroom drama that paved the way for a new trial for Roger. The state feared it might not win again and offered Roger freedom after five years in prison if he would confess to second-degree murder.
Hatcher and Poling have draped their story in the seriocomic mantel of light opera, right down to the “dark and stormy night” effects that open the show. Poling’s minor-key score draws on the shanty songs of Lake Superior sailors as an excellent cast sings “The Ballad of Glensheen.”
Throughout the show, Poling’s lyrics are archly witty, his tunes simple and his rhythms foursquare.
Hatcher has always been best in the droll verse of sarcasm. His Marjorie, as played by Jennifer Maren, is brassy and tartly jaundiced — a bad seed who not only is comfortable with her deep flaws but embraces them as tools to get ahead. Dane Stauffer’s Roger is a deliciously dumb cad who gives off a boozy glow and a lack of self awareness. He says the funniest things and doesn’t realize it. We get the message, too, that he is little more than Marjorie’s patsy.
The playwright, and director Peluso, stretch the show’s theatricality, with a stand-up comedy moment for the lawyer who defended Marjorie. Wendy Lehr, who also portrays several other characters, is brilliant as the lawyer, replete with bad punchlines and a song alleging that Marjorie is being railroaded by a “Conspiracy.”
Stauffer’s Roger also gets to step out of real time when he takes the stand ostensibly to testify against Marjorie and instead does a soft-shoe shuffle and dance about his fondness for his estranged wife.
This is Marjorie’s show, though. Maren relishes the bad-girl coarseness and duplicity — the mystery of how she got this way — and Hatcher proposes this odd lady (who is still alive) still haunts Glensheen in her own manner.
Peluso’s production is first-rate, with a big staircase and upstairs landing dominating Rick Polenek’s set design. There are a few welcome tricks in Barry Browning’s lighting scheme and Andrew Fleser leads an accomplished five-person band.
Peluso had said in an interview that he hoped the musical would honor the deaths of Elisabeth and Velma. Perhaps another time? This buoyant work is to busy having a slashing fit of fun. It kills with laughter, not sentiment.