The Boy Wonder Renews My Faith in Humanity, or at Least That Some Politicians Once Had Some at History Theatre
History Theatre in St. Paul launches their 2023-2024 theater season with the world premiere of the new musical The Boy Wonder by Keith Hovis. To say that I found the production exceptional would be to under sell it. In fact, to try and sum up the show in one word would undermine the fact that it is a multifaceted and layered work. For it is inspirational, moving, funny, educational, relevant, and very entertaining. As someone who has lost almost all interest and certainly all faith in politics, this show made me care again, while not boring me by being a musical about politics. Hovis who wrote the book as well as the music and lyrics has a gift for songwriting and storytelling, both which is a rare gift, a boy wonder himself to be sure. The cast is led by the phenomenal Evan Tyler Wilson whom with this performance may finally shed the label my wife uses for him and his former co-stars of “one of my All is Calm Boys“. Which isn’t a derogatory label, as the inclusion in a shows cast of one of her “All is Calm Boys“, guarantees she will be my plus one for that show.
To say that I found the production exceptional would be to under sell it.
The Boy Wonder tells the true story of Harold Stassen who was the youngest person ever elected to the Governorship of Minnesota. It’s the story of a man who dedicated his life to public service and the rare politician who put principles before party. What people remember of Harold Stassen is his never ending runs for the Republican Presidential Nomination which he did routinely from 1940 through 1992. It’s the story behind a punchline that reveals a man who was so much more than we remember. A man who possibly lost his chance at the Presidency because he followed his sense of duty to his country, resigning during his third term as Governor with a 91% approval rating to join the Navy during World War II. Losing momentum careerwise by following his gut, he still contributed greatly to our country and the world playing a key part in the formation of the United Nations. Obviously, we learn just the barest elements about the real man but if this representation of the man is anywhere near the truth, then I can say of him something I cannot imagine saying about a candidate in the modern era, this is a Republican I would vote for. He also seems to be the antithesis of every Republican of today. He put service, the people, and Country before his party.
Two wonderful local actors portray Harold Stassen via a structural device that Hovis uses allowing us to focus on the his early successes, while we acknowledge the second half of his life that doesn’t have a storybook ending. Bradley Greenwald is Stassen as the story begins in 1991, about announcing his final run for President. He is being urged by his son Glen, played by Thomas Bevan, to stop running. The rest of the show is Glen having the younger version of his father, played by the aforementioned Evan Tyler Wilson, recount his life as he repeatedly tells his father this is a perfectly respectable ending to his public life. Greenwald, plays Stassen briefly throughout but also plays many other roles including that of Harold’s father. Wilson is simply fantastic in the role, with a singing voice that is unmatched by a cast of exceptional singers, he also easily endears us to his character whose idealism finds a way against the odds to win. The heart of the play comes from the relationship between Harold and his wife Esther played by Emily Dussault. Together they create a palpable sense of affection and devotion, it’s a relationship that feels authentic and as ideal as Strassen’s approach to politics. The rest of the cast plays multiple roles wonderfully finding ways to distinguish their different characters in a way that makes it seem like the cast is much larger than nine. I also want to give a special mention of Jen Maren’s performances, comedically as Harold’s mother, and vocally every time she opens her mouth, another flawless vocalist that it’s always a joy to listen too.
The Boy Wonder is directed by Laura Leffler who will always hold a special place in my heart as the Assistant Director of Steel Magnolias at the Guthrie who went on as a member of the cast when there was an illness and received the loudest ovation from the audience. Here as Director, she uses the set designed by the fabulous Sadie Ward to great advantage. The center of the stage is a turntable, Leffler wisely resists the urge to overuse the device, instead making it an impactful element by using it only when it adds the scene. The scenes with songs are all handled well, but it’s the quieter moments where Leffler really shows her skill at creating intimate connections between the characters. These lay the groundwork so that the bigger story beats still create genuine emotions and responses from the audience. Amanda Weis as the Musical Director is on the keys and overseeing a solid group of musicians bringing Hovi’s catching and memorable songs to life.
The Boy Wonder is a mirror for the world today and also its remedy. As you watch it you will ache for a world in which candidates had the integrity and ideology of Harold Stassen. As someone who has lost faith in our political parties, it was amazing to find a hero on the other side of the aisle. Though to be fair his Republican views sound like modern day Democratic stances. The Boy Wonder runs through October 29th at History Theatre in Downtown St. Paul for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/2023-2024/boy-wonder
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