Theater review: History Theatre’s hit murder musical ‘Glensheen’ entertaining as ever

14 July 2023

There’s a palpable sense of absence in downtown St. Paul this summer, as the financially troubled Park Square Theatre sits dark when it would customarily be presenting one of its very popular summer murder mysteries. But if you need a little murder in your life, it’s available blocks away at the History Theatre.

“Glensheen” originally premiered in 2015 and has become one of the Twin Cities’ most unlikely theatrical success stories. Who would think that a musical comedy about one of the state’s most notorious murders would become such a hit?

Yet the latest incarnation of “Glensheen” makes clear the reasons for its success. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and composer Chan Poling have crafted a consistently clever and tremendously tuneful musical about the 1977 murder of heiress Elisabeth Congdon and nurse Velma Pietila, and the subsequent trials of Congdon’s daughter, Marjorie Caldwell, and her husband, Roger Caldwell.

And the 2023 production — featuring six of 2015’s original seven actors — is as enjoyable as any they’ve offered, a high-energy combination of silliness and sympathy for its characters.

That’s saying something, when you consider that Marjorie Caldwell has much to discredit her. And yes, she is still alive, marking her 91st birthday on July 14. As compellingly portrayed by Jennifer Maren, she’s a fascinating study, a sweet and sour blend of charm and malevolence who belts out her bitterness with roof-raising power.

While Maren commands the stage, it’s to the immense credit of Hatcher, Poling and the cast that each character — and everyone, save Maren, plays several — is a colorful creation brought to vibrant life while getting a scene or three to steal.

While Marjorie probably plotted the murder, it was husband Roger who did the deeds, and Dane Stauffer makes of him more than a hapless, malaprop-spouting buffoon. Yes, he’s comically dim, but there’s a pitiable sadness about him as we watch him drawn into Marjorie’s orbit.

Briskly directed by History Theatre’s recently retired artistic director, Ron Peluso, the show follows Marjorie as she finds her perfect stooge in Roger, is cut out of the family inheritance because of her spendthrift ways, devises the murder plot and goes on trial in the crime’s aftermath. The tale is spun with plenty of laughter and witty songs before the second act allows more of the underlying tragedy to bubble to the surface.

Well, that is after the grande dame of Twin Cities theater, Wendy Lehr, opens the act with a high-energy rock number as Marjorie’s sensationalist defense attorney. By contrast, Lehr also delivers the show’s most moving moment, a sad ballad from the grave courtesy of the murdered nurse, Velma Pietila.

Completing the cast are Gary Briggle, Sandra Struthers, Randy Schmeling and Ruthie Baker, and each deftly sculpts memorable characters, sells Poling’s catchy songcraft (artfully arranged by Robert Elhai) and executes Tinia Moulder’s delightfully silly choreography while clad in E. Amy Hill’s eye-catching costumes.

Propelled forth by an excellent five-piece band led by David Lohman, all this very entertaining action takes place on a Rick Polenek set that echoes the mansion’s grandeur and is handsomely lit by Bill Healey. After eight years, it feels as if no one’s enthusiasm for the material has flagged a bit. And that’s understandable, for it is indeed one of Twin Cities theater’s most imaginative creations thus far this century.


When: Through July 23

Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul

Tickets: $74-$15, available at 651-292-4323 or

Capsule: It’s a hit for a reason.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at [email protected].

Related Articles

Things to Do |

Theater review: CDT’s ‘Jersey Boys’ is a winner thanks to savvy casting

Things to Do |

Musical theater review: Guthrie spins some spirited Sondheim with ‘Into the Woods’

Things to Do |

Brought from the big screen to the Orpheum stage, ‘Tootsie’ shows its age

Need help?

If you need support, please send an email to [email protected]

Thank you.