It’s sometimes said about historical figures that if they didn’t exist, someone would have to make them up. That’s not the case with Lord Gordon Gordon: No one would ever feel the need to invent the story of a 19th-century con artist who duped a bunch of Minnesotans before swindling railroad baron Jay Gould and then nearly igniting a war across the Canadian border. That just... happened.
This strange but true story is the inspiration for a new musical by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and composer Chan Poling. They were the team behind Glensheen, one of the best new musicals to premiere in Minnesota this decade and a hit that’s coming back for another summer at the History Theatre. First, though, History Theatre director Ron Peluso is premiering Lord Gordon Gordon.
Mark Benninghofen plays the eponymous scoundrel, who’s masquerading as a Scottish noble when he arrives in the newly minted Gopher State shortly after the Civil War. He promises that 60,000 of his countrymen are ready to make their home in the heartland, inspiring local investors to buy in before there’s actually anything to buy.
As he heads to New York City with his accomplice “valet” (Adam Qualls), Gordon has a train-car affair with Sarah (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), a society insider who suggests that he make the millionaire Gould (Randy Schmeling) his next mark. When that scheme goes south, Gordon goes north, followed by the hoodwinked Minnesotans who are now, as the song that ends Act One puts it, “Nice and Mad.”
As they did to such great effect in Glensheen, Hatcher and Poling find sympathy for the devil. Without that story’s fascinating family dynamics, though, most of the psychological depth here comes by way of Gordon’s relationships with Sarah and his supposed valet. If those plotlines feel less than compelling, the problem lies in the character of Gordon himself.
Whereas Glensheen’s Marjorie Congdon is reliably riveting, Lord Gordon is constantly being upstaged. Benninghofen makes a low-key shyster, letting his targets build him up and then walk into their own traps. That may be a good strategy for crooks, but it doesn’t do much for the musical.
Still, the stage bursts with enough life to make Lord Gordon Gordon an enjoyable history lesson. Hatcher and Poling have a lot of fun with the Minnesotans who are half ashamed and half proud to be caught up in a scam that turns into an international incident, but it’s when the story moves to Canada that the jabs really fly. Jen Maren and Katie Bradley all but steal the show as the Mounties who apprehend Gordon and his would-be captors.
Poling and Hatcher clearly delight in their partnership. The show’s dramatic momentum slacks, but its wit never does. Hatcher and Poling are a match made in heaven: a little place we like to call “Minnesota.”
Lord Gordon Gordon
30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
651-292-4323; through June 3