Who says history has to be boring and humorless? Not Chan Poling, Jeffrey Hatcher, and the cast and creative team behind History Theatre’s Lord Gordon Gordon. This brand-new musical--by the team that brought the Twin Cities Glensheen--is a frothy and frivolous ride through a lesser-known point in Minnesotan and con artist history.
Tinged with melodrama and vaudeville, Lord Gordon Gordon gives us a masterful con man who, in the guise of a Scottish lord, bilks a group of wealthy Minnesotans out of thousands of dollars by promising to bring 60,000 Scots to settle in the new state (thereby bringing in a significant source of cash for investors). He is then introduced to New York society by Sarah Belden, wife of a broker, who suggests the Wall Street railroad magnate Jay Gould as Gordon Gordon’s next mark.
The incredible pace of this musical is breath-taking. We move quite seamlessly from a hotel ballroom to the Minnesota prairie (via toy train) to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the wilds of Canada (yes, we go to Canada, mounties and all!). Transitions are facilitated by the terrific set (designed by Eli Sherlock), lighting (by Barry Browning), and sound (C. Andrew Mayer). Picture a two-level set with enough doors to make Noises Off! happen. Cover the walls with all kinds of bric-a-brac--tennis rackets, camping percolators, deer heads, railroad lanterns, portraits--and now wash it all over in warm orange. Though the musical never reaches Noises Off! proportions regarding those doors, they are used to comedic effect for reveals and grand entrances. Lighting and sound support and fill out each locale, suggesting the warmth of a dance floor or the isolation of a train compartment at night.
And the music! This musical is stuffed to the gills with toe-tappers and melodies that play in your mind. I wish more had stuck in my brain, as Poling’s score is lush and simply a helluva a lot of fun. In his program note, Poling explains the variety of sources he drew from from the score: mid-century musicals like Annie Get Your Gun, tango, Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars, and contemporary musical theatre. It’s got everything! “Lang May Yir Lum Reek” is especially pretty and remains stuck in my brain days later. “The Truth, Mr. Gordon” felt so Cole Porter and so polished that I wanted a cold martini in my hand with which to toast all involved.
Tamara Kangas Erickson’s choreography makes the cast of 13 feel like many more, notably in the ensemble numbers. “The Solitary Man,” a number between Gordon Gordon and his valet, begged to be turned into a buddy dance a la Astaire and Kelly in “The Babbit and the Bromide.” Alas, it was not to be. But Mark Benninghofen and Adam Qualls made a charming go of it nonetheless, exuding camaraderie the whole way.
The cast is uniformly along for the ride, playing their parts in a mostly broad style that fits this wacky musical. The ensemble clearly have great fun with their various parts, especially Katie Bradley and Jen Maren as, variously, showgirls, respectable Minnesotans, and a pair of Mounties. But all the ensemble deserves praise for quite literally wearing a lot of hats and for carrying off with aplomb so many spectacular barbs at Minnesota’s expense. (There’s a number called “Nice and Mad.”)
As Sarah Belden, Jennifer Baldwin Peden really shines. Her terrific voice--speaking and singing--lend dimension to the character. She brings this clever, intelligent woman to life and gives her real depth and drive. Mark Benninghofen plays our (anti)hero with panache, and it’s great fun to watch the confidence man unravel in the face of--can it be?--sincere feelings for Sarah.
I do wish we could see more of Lord Gordon Gordon in action before he and the wealthy Minnesotans hop on a train to survey land. Mainly, I don’t want to be told by the ensemble that Lord Gordon Gordon is this mysterious, wealthy, and intriguing Scottish lord; I want to see him intrigue people and drop some serious coin. As it is, Benninghofen plays Gordon Gordon with a touch of self-doubt in the earliest parts of the show. Perhaps it’s a choice and it’s meant to be read as Gordon Gordon putting on a mask for the Minnesotans to appear in their debt and humbled by their generosity.
But such is exposition in a musical. This is a minor complaint for a show that’s such fun. The second act feels a bit stretched in places, but when the filler is Ulysses S. Grant pondering in song how history will remember him, you laugh and forget. I’m also torn on the issue of whether or not Sarah Belden should reveal to Gordon Gordon sooner her motive for wanting revenge on Jay Gould. I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I won’t get specific. By merely withholding that information, Hatcher might think he’s upping the tension around Sarah’s motives, but the audience already knows she’s a clever woman who can lie with the best of them. Let her reveal her motive sooner to deepen the audience’s investment.
Again, these are fairly small quibbles, and I hope this musical has a well-attended run and a life after this production. With a cast of 13--four of whom were played by SPCPA students as masked dancers and stagehands--the show is tidy enough for regional theatre. The Minnesota focus may be a bit inside baseball, but Hatcher’s lively book and Poling’s catchy tunes should mean wide appeal. So, head to History Theatre for this have-a-good-time musical. You might learn a little something about Minnesota history in between your bouts of laughter.