Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sweet Land, the Musical
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of A Year with Frog and Toad, Wiesenthal, We Are the Levinsons, The Bluest Eye, Girl Shakes Loose


Robert Berdahl, Jon Andrew Hegge, Ann Michels and Matt Riehle
Photo by Rick Spauling
Sweet Land, the Musical is an occasion for cheers. This new musical is based on the same-named 2005 film, which in turn was based on Will Weaver's short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat." Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge adapted the story for the stage, with Flanigan Hegge writing lyrics for songs composed by Dina Maccabee. The result is a beautiful work of musical theater. The book is literate, rich in warmth and humor, and creates fully formed characters who speak in the voice of their place and time. Maccabee's lovely folk-flavored music captures the essence of rural life in 1920 Minnesota, with rising swells that convey the deep emotions at the heart of the story. The current world premiere production mounted by History Theatre could hardly be improved upon.

The story is set in and around the town of Park Rapids, Minnesota. Olaf Torvik is a Norwegian bachelor farmer (long before Garrison Keillor made sport of his ilk) who awaits the arrival of Inge Altenberg, travelling from Norway to be his bride and share his spacious farm house. Inge is German by birth, but left her homeland for Norway after the war. There she worked for Olaf's mother, who arranged the match for her son. Inge arrives, speaking only German. She and Olaf head straight to the church to be married, but when dour Pastor Sorenson learns she is German, he refuses to conduct the ceremony. The losses of World War I at the hands of the German enemy are too fresh in his mind, a view shared by most of the community. Olaf and Inge decide to forgo a church wedding and be married at the courthouse, but the county judge also refuses, citing a need for references to prove that Inge is not a German spy.

While awaiting the references to arrive from Europe, Inge stays with Olaf's loyal friend Frandsen, his wife Brownie, and their many children. Salt-of-the-earth Brownie teaches Inge the ropes of farm life and some basic English, but the commotion at the Frandsen household is too much for Inge, who flees back to Olaf's house. Olaf is aghast that Inge is there before they have been properly wed—it is sure to cause a scandal in the town, even brand them as Bolsheviks. Inge wins him over, though Olaf insists that he will sleep in the barn. Winning over the community, especially self-righteous Pastor Sorensen, is a greater challenge, as Inge and Olaf are shunned by all but the Frandsens. Since the show is framed as a flashback, with Olaf and Inge's grandson Lars remembering his grandparents in 1975 as he prepares to sell off their farmstead, we are pretty confident that things will work out. Yet Sweet Land depicts the knitting together of Olaf and Inge's hearts and a community's shift from judgment to generosity with such tenderness and love that we remain engrossed in each step of their journey.

Co-author Perrin Post also serves as the show's director, and she brings just the right blend of love story and history lesson, wisely giving the edge to the former. She seamlessly transitions between scenes and fluidly moves the ensemble in and out of the story. Of the cast of thirteen, six members of the ensemble also appear as the show's orchestra. As called for, they step away from their instruments or carry their instruments with them, playing small roles or joining a choral or dance piece as one of Olaf's neighbors. The effect of this is to meld the music and the on-stage community together, making the music an organic part of the story. The choreography, by Joe Chvala, is graceful but simple, drawing on the folk and social dancing of the play's era, which like the music, makes it an authentic part of the tale, rather than an added-on entertainment.

With a beautiful, full voice, Ann Michels is wonderful as Inge, who has a strong-willed determination to make her life amidst strangers in a new land work. She is also very funny, flying into fits of German when agitated or teasing Olaf's prudish resistance to her incursion in his home ("You Took a Bath"), and she pours her heart into the resolute statement of the life she has claimed in "Call Me Inge Torvik." She is also beautiful to behold, making Olaf's contained desire for her easy to believe. As Olaf, handsome and deep voiced Robert Berdahl is ideally cast. He portrays the shy, awkward bachelor with droll humor, his passions deeply contained, but revealed as he watches Frandsen taking a photo of Inge ("The Photograph") and in a stirring duet with Inge, "Ducks Dream," that finally gives voice to his feelings. The pair also offers a lovely double soliloquy, "When We Are Married," each imagining what their lives will be like when they finally tie the marriage knot.

Jon Andrew Hegge is spirited as Alvin Frandsen, especially so in the lighthearted song "Ducky," which puts Inge at ease in her new surroundings. Tinia Moulder is delightful as Brownie, pivoting between her roles as empathetic friend to Inge, playful wife to Frandsen, and hectoring mother to her brood of children. Moulder and Hegge deliver the goods together in "Bigger Better Faster," explaining the American pursuit of progress to Inge. Michael Gruber is convincingly stern as Pastor Sorensen, who struggles between what is right and what is good, and James Ramlet uses his booming voice effectively as the unyielding judge and as a banker trying to repossess the Frandsen farm. Norah Long sings beautifully, as always, and brings her warm presence to small roles of an opinionated Park Rapids neighbor; Olaf's mother, extolling Inge's virtues; and, in the framing scenes, Lars' wife Gail.

All of the ensemble members play their roles and their instruments in perfect harmony, with special mention to Matt Riehle as a farm auctioneer who makes "The Auction" a thrilling ensemble number. Other ensemble pieces—the opening "Land So Sweet," the jubilant "Baseball Rag," the second act opener "Summer," and the call to work together as neighbors, "Threshing Time"—are all delivered with great voice and spirit.

The physical production is spare, but effectively creates the farm, church, and town spaces. Mike Grogan's beautiful lighting design creates the changing northern Minnesota sky, and Erica Zaffarano's sound design brings sounds of nature to the settings. A large-wheeled conveyance charmingly represents Frandsen's automobile and tractor. Paula Post's costumes are well suited for the rustic Park Rapids setting.

Author Will Weaver created these characters, and he knows them well. His parents are of Scandinavian descent and he grew up on a dairy farm near Park Rapids. The story may not be his, per se, but the place and the people in it are his, which surely is a factor in both the authenticity and affection that ring through Sweet Land. At the same time as it harkens to a century past with a sense of nostalgia, it raises issues that are bracingly current—an immigrant held under suspicion because of her nationality, and a man shunned because he embraces that immigrant. The news today is rife with reports of immigrants who feel unwelcome by our government, and refugees to whom we withhold a safe haven because of our anxiety about their homeland. While America has always been a nation of immigrants, we also have a history of uncharitable treatment toward new waves of arrivals.

Perhaps Sweet Land is too small and gentle a story to survive the commercial blare of Broadway, but with its beautiful music, compelling narrative and a message that remains essential, the show should certainly find success on stages in New York and across the nation. Though set in Minnesota, this is not a Minnesota story; it is an American story, of barriers faced by immigrants, and of communities working together—the pain and the promise of America. It is also a thoroughly human story of enduring love. Sweet Land is one of the finest original works to appear on any Twin Cities stage over the past several seasons.

Sweet Land continues at History Theatre through May 28, 2017. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets $25.00 - $52.00; seniors (age 60+) $25.00 - $50.00; under 30 - $25.00 - $30.00; students $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Book: Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge, from the film Sweet Land written and directed by Ali Selim and short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat" by Will Weaver; Music: Dina Maccabee; Lyrics: Laurie Flanigan Hegge; Director: Perrin Post; Choreography: Joe Chvala; Scenic Design: Erica Zaffarano; Costume Design: Paula Post; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Lee Christiansen; Scenic Artist" Dee Skogen; Musical Arranger: Robert Elhai; Musical Director: Jason Hansen; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Production Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Managers: Diane Foss and Janet L. Hall.

Cast: Josh Ackerley (neighbor, bass), Robert Berdahl (Lars Torvik, Olaf Torvik), Colleen Bertsch (neighbor, Anna, violin), Randall Davidson (neighbor, Larson, cello), Michael Gruber (neighbor, Pastor Sorenson), Jason Hansen (neighbor, Nelson, piano, accordion), Jon Andrew Hegge (neighbor, Alvin Frandsen), Norah Long (Gail Torvik, Esther Larson, Olaf's mother), Ann Michels (Inge Altenberg), Tinia Moulder (neighbor, Brownie Frandsen), James Ramlet (neighbor, station agent, judge, Harold), Matt Riehle (neighbor, Amundson, clerk, auctioneer, guitar), Dylan Younger (neighbor, train conductor, woodwinds, guitar).


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