Taproot Theatre’s summer musical Sweet Land a compelling and warm-hearted immigrant story
by Miryam Gordon – SGN A&E Writer
Through August 18
Taproot Theatre has a summer tradition of choosing a musical to perform. This year, they’ve found a new musical, a show that’s only been performed once before, so Sweet Land will be completely new to everyone in Seattle-land. An immigrant tale told by book writer Perrin Post, book and lyric writer Laurie Flanigan Hegge and composer Dina Maccabee, the story is based on a small, independent film by Ali Selim, made in 2005.
The immigrant is Inge Altenberg. It’s 1920 and she has traveled from Norway to meet and marry the farmer son, Olaf (Tyler Todd Kimmel), of her Norwegian employers. All the couple has ahead of time are grainy photos of each other. The plucky Inge, played with verve and heart by the lovely Mollie Corcoran, has the strength of mind and conviction to travel all the way to the middle of Minnesota, not knowing the prejudice she will face immediately.
It turns out that she is not Norwegian, but German. It’s just after World War I and the small town inhabitants, particularly the pastor (Hugh Hastings) and the town clerk, refuse to marry Inge and Olaf, leaving her without a home while she somehow persuades the town that she’s a good person.
Olaf’s friends, Alvin (Chris Shea) and Brownie (April Poland), take her in, even with eight children and one on the way. But that many kids drives Inge so crazy she adamantly insists on staying at Olaf’s while he sleeps in the barn. This could derail all their plans, though, if anyone finds out and deems the couple ‘immoral.’ Of course, it can’t remain a secret all that long.
The journey of this couple through tears and laughter is a sweet one. The talented cast does justice to the material. However, the story is a bit frustrating, mostly because from our vantage point in 2018, the ignorance toward a random, happens-to-be-German person and the imposition of moral values that ‘everyone knows’ are right don’t sit well with most Seattlites these days. But that is not to say that it still does not happen routinely to anyone who has moved to any new community – even if it is a ‘white’ person into a ‘white’ community.
The energetic performance by Corcoran can’t help but propel the story forward. Kimmel provides a more subtle, but also strong, support as the taciturn Olaf finally (FINALLY!) warms up to his bride-to-be. Shea and Poland are a lovely complement to the leads.
The music of this show is quite challenging. There are a lot of minor keys and very odd harmonies called for. That adds piquancy to the songs, but also adds a lot of work for the singers. The four-person band provides sophisticated accompaniment. Perhaps the acoustics of the staging impede some of the musical supports to the actors – but here’s hoping the cast can keep working to master the complications and meld a bit more. At opening night the harmonic blend wasn’t fully ready.
Some of the songs highlight the humor, such as ‘Ducky,’ when Inge is taught that 1920’s slang phrase and ‘Baseball Rag.’ ‘Land So Sweet’ is the intro and extro music that brackets the story, though some lyrics could use a bit more tart-ening up. There are some nice moments of choreography (by Katy Tabb) and the usual adept set (Mark Lund), costumes (Kelly McDonald) and direction (Karen Lund).
This isn’t a rousing musical extravaganza. It’s a small story, but it has a lot of strands that harken to the immigrant story of this country and the work we can all do to open our hearts to others and give everyone a chance to contribute what they are able. And that’s a pretty sweet message.
For more information, go to http://www.taproottheatre.org or call 206-781-9707.