Seattle Gay News review!

Taproot Theatre’s summer musical Sweet Land a compelling and warm-hearted immigrant story

by Miryam Gordon – SGN A&E Writer

SWEET LAND
TAPROOT THEATRE
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.

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Teen Tix – Seattle Review!

The Human Behind the Label

Review of Sweet Land at Taproot Theatre Company, written by TeenTix Press Corps Member Emily B.!

DANCEMUSICTHEATER BY TEENTIX | JULY 20, 2018 | 12:25 PM

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Hugh Hastings, Michael Winters, Pam Nolte, Molli Corcoran, Tyler Todd Kimmel, Daniel Stoltenberg, April Poland and Chris Shea in Sweet Land, the Musical at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The battle cry “Us versus them,”and the brutal labeling accompanying it, is all too familiar today. One might not expect a seemingly simple historical fiction musical to offer a relevant response, yet Taproot Theatre’s Sweet Land does just that with touching, convicting, and joyful power.

Sweet Land tells the story of a young German woman, Inge Altenburg, who travels to Minnesota to marry a man she’s never met, Norwegian Olaf Torvik. But with World War I a recent and painful memory, Olaf’s community condemns the match, delaying the marriage. The events of this waiting period–the challenges faced, relationships built, and lives changed—are the heart of the musical’s story.

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Molli Corcoran and Tyler Todd Kimmel in Sweet Land, the Musical at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The piece is a tour de force for Molli Corcoran (Inge) and Tyler Todd Kimmel (Olaf), who carry the story with moving, grounded brilliance. Corcoran’s vocal versatility and acting ability are immediately evident in her introductory song, which clearly establishes both her talent and Inge’s character (kudos to composer Dina Maccabee and lyricist Laurie Flanigan Hegge for the soaring work of storytelling that is the score). The tough, loving, courageous “mail-order bride” Inge is unafraid to be the voice of reason and to act in defiance of “what people will think.” Her “strength, power, and grace” are some of the first things to strike her fiancé. Olaf is a man of few words—yet Kimmel skillfully creates the character through his striking physicality and presence. Long before he has spoken, the audience knows Olaf well, and, in moments when the stage is full of movement and sound, it is the still, shy farmer who draws the audience’s eye. While waiting for the outside approval the community requires before allowing their marriage, Inge and Olaf come to understand and love one another. Their blossoming relationship—conveyed as much through wordless glances and softening physicality as through words—is a joy to watch.

Brownie and Alvin Frandsen (played by April Poland and Chris Shea,respectively) offer contrasting and complementary enthusiasm, loquaciousness, and levity as they alone support—and are ultimately supported alone by—Inge and Olaf. Notable among the many less supportive members of the community (played by a small but versatile ensemble) is Hugh Hastings as Pastor Sorensen, the minister who refuses to marry Inge and Olaf and who plays a large role in turning the community against the couple. Hastings and the writers of the musical’s book, Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge,make this character (who could easily become the stereotypical uber-conservative villain) refreshingly believable, complex, and ultimately redeemable.

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April Poland, Michael Winters, Molli Corcoran, Tyler Todd Kimmel and Chris Shea in Sweet Land, the Musical at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

A meaningful simplicity pervades the musical: seamless pedestrian choreography by Katy Tabb consistently creates the world of Sweet Land and advances its story. Many unassuming moments are imbued with moving significance by director Karen Lund and her skilled company of actors.

The story of an ancestor immigrating to America to start a new life is a familiar piece of family history for many Americans—but in the context of today’s headlines, an immigrant story bears additional, emotionally charged, potentially divisive significance. The musical connects thoughts on immigrants past and present, as the town’s sudden harsh suspicion of Inge as the foreign “other” is painfully familiar.

But as the play progresses, one forgets that it is an “immigrant story,” as audiences recognize themselves in its portrayal  of universal human experiences: difficulty communicating, making mistakes, dealing with conflict, giving and facing judgement, courage, defiance, sacrifice, love, and acceptance. And maybe that’s the point: when one strips away the labels slapped on the unfamiliar ones, or on the ones who think or act differently, what is left are humans who are not so different after all. Sweet Land is a powerful challenge to see each other not as ‘us and them,’ but first and foremost as fellow humans, and to treat each other accordingly with respect, empathy, and love.

Seattle Times review for Sweet Land!

Taproot Theatre’s summer musical Sweet Land a compelling and warm-hearted immigrant story

by Miryam Gordon – SGN A&E Writer

SWEET LAND
TAPROOT THEATRE
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.

 

 

BEST OF SEATTLE Review

Friday, July 20, 2018

‘Sweet Land’ is a Satisfying Experience

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Hugh Hastings, Michael Winters, Pam Nolte, Molli Corcoran, Tyler Todd Kimmel, Daniel Stoltenberg, April Poland and Chris Shea. (Photo by Erik Stuhaug)

THEATRE REVIEW

Seattle’s Taproot Theatre often takes chances presenting plays and musicals based on works that are not that well-known instead of tried-and-true favorites. It can be difficult to drum up interest in such productions. Even though the theatre’s current production of Sweet Land is based on the 2006 movie of the same name, it is an independent movie and not too many people are aware of it, but they should. Taproot has the distinction of being the west coast premiere location for the musical which just might be the start for this new show.

The story of Sweet Land is a simple one. In 1920, a young German woman named Inge (Molli Corcoran) agrees to cross the sea to marry Olaf (Tyler Todd Kimmel) a Norwegian man whom she has never met. She knows very little English and on her journey has worked hard with one phrase, “I could eat a horse” finding that it isn’t as useful as she might have thought. The plan was for Olaf to pick up Inge at the train station and head straight to the church to be married. But there is a hitch. Still bruised from World War I, many residents of Park Rapids, Minnesota as suspicious of Germans thinking that Inge could be a spy. This includes Pastor Sorenson (Hugh Hastings) who refuses to marry the couple unless they can come up with some sort of references for the girl, preferably from a clergy member from her hometown. The justice of peace in town also refuses. The couple can’t get married and they can’t live in the same house as it would appear to not only scandalous but also against Inge’s and Olaf’s own religious upbringing.

To make matters even more difficult, Olaf is extremely shy and actually avoids his bride who is having her own hard time fitting in. Alvin and “Brownie” Frandsen (Chris Shea and April Poland) take in the girl to live with their rather large family while things get sorted out. Brownie shows Inge how to read American recipes and despite his uncertain feelings for Inge, Pastor Sorenson agrees to teach Inge English using the Bible as his guide. Still, suspicion and prejudice abound.

On top of everything else, Sweet Land has a rather “sweet” message about the value of sexual purity of all things. As the audience, we get to see how this innocent romance between two strangers bloom. Both Inge and Olaf avoid any act or behavior that could be considered improper. The romance grows naturally and the two long for the day when they can finally be wed to experience all the joys that marriage has to offer. The story is a refreshing one and speaks volumes to many people today who hardly scoff at a one-night-stand.

I haven’t seen the movie and suspect that it is considered more of a drama than anything else. But the stage play has plenty of laughs in this fish out of water comedy. Kimmel and Corcoran are especially good as the potential love birds. I don’t know if Corcoran spoke German before she was cast in the play, but you’d never know if she hadn’t. Both she and Kimmel are very animated and their facial expressions are tell us everything that they are thinking without saying a word. The story moves at a good pace and music is pleasant enough and doesn’t pull the audience away from the story. There is an auction scene that is tied to a musical number that is especially good at creating tension. The musicians include Michael Matlock (piano), Dexter Stevens (reeds), Emily Ravenscraft (violin) and Leah Pogwizd (bassist). The cast is rounded out with Jenny Cross, Michael Winters, Pam Nolte and Daniel Stoltenberg, all equally good.

The only negative I found with Sweet Land is the portrayal of Pastor Sorenson. While on one hand he is scene a pillar of the community and one that is fully involved in helping the various neighbors during their crop’s harvests. On the other hand, he is shown as a judgmental jerk who assumes the worst about Olaf and Inge’s relationship and even spreads rumors about the two. Haven’t we had enough stories about judgmental clergy members? Isn’t it time to have stories that represent pastor and priests with good hearts and good examples for a change? They do exist.

Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at 206-781-9707 or in person at the Box Office. Tickets range from $27-$50 depending on the performance. The theatre does offer some discounts, so be sure to visit their website to take advantage of them. Sweet Land is recommended for those age 12 and older. Taproot Theatre is located at 204 N 85th St. in Seattle.

Norwegian Press in Seattle!

https://www.norwegianamerican.com/arts/adaption-of-sweet-land-onstage-in-seattle/

Adaption of Sweet Land onstage in Seattle

From movie to musical

Sweet Land, the Musical

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

When Sweet Land was released in 2005, the independent film written and directed by Ali Selim quickly gained critical acclaim. Set in the Midwest farmland prairie of Minnesota in the 1920s, it is the story of a small Norwegian immigrant community that is jolted when a young German woman comes to settle there in an arranged marriage. It is a sentimental tale of both love and friendship that flourish as the community learns to open its hearts and minds to an outsider. The story struck a chord with the creators of a new stage version, Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge, and they knew immediately that they wanted to craft it into a stage play.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I had the pleasure to chat with Post and Hegge when they came to Seattle for the West Coast premiere of Sweet Land, the Musical at the Taproot Theatre in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. It was a project over 10 years in the making, and as I would learn later that evening, well worth the wait. Both natives of Minnesota, the two playwrights have a strong affinity for the roots of the play. Post told me about her proud Swedish-Finnish heritage, and Hegge is Scandinavian by marriage. A chance connection gave them easy access to the film’s screenwriter. One of Hegge’s son’s friends had appeared in the movie and set up a conversation with Selim, and without hesitation he granted the two women the stage rights. They learned that Selim had based his filmscript on the 1989 short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” by Will Weaver, another Scandinavian American from Minnesota, and soon he was also on board to provide inspiration and support.

The basic plot of Sweet Land is simple: Olaf Torvik is a Norwegian immigrant farmer on the prairie. He is hard working and successful, but lonely. His mother back home in Norway had found Inge, a young German war orphan, and understands that she is the one for her son. She sends Inge to America, but upon arrival, it is learned that she is German, not Norwegian, and she is not accepted. Even worse, her only papers indicate that she may have socialist leanings, and the locals treat her with even more suspicion.

Sweet Land, the Musical

But the determined Inge is not willing to give up. Against all advice, she goes to Olaf’s farm, and with time she falls in love with both the land and its owner. They gain the support of Olaf’s friend Alvin Frandsen and his Irish-born wife Brownie, who strive to teach Inge American ways. Unable to marry because of the authorities, Olaf and Inge buck all common conventions and live together as husband and wife. They remain on the land they love and choose to be buried there in the wheat fields, leaving a legacy of love for their son, Lars. Wheat is central to the meaning of the play as symbol of fertility, bounty, and resurrection: once it is successfully harvested, the community has come together and will thrive for generations to come.

Early on, the playwrights understood that their stage version was destined to become a musical. Whereas the film lives largely from its cinematic scope, with gorgeous views of sweeping landscapes and close-up shots to convey inner life of the protagonists, the stage play takes life from music. Quiet unspoken moments are conveyed by songs that sound out as a stream-of-consciousness narrative. At other times, the story lends itself naturally to the music, as with the big community barn dance. Fortunately, the writers were able to find the right collaborator with Dina Maccabee, whose score fits perfectly with Hegge’s lyrics. Much of the music finds its inspiration in Scandinavian folk, as well as the vaudeville and ragtime genres popular in the 1920s. The orchestration has been scaled down to a small ensemble that appears onstage: strings, woodwinds, piano, percussion, and of course an accordion.

Sweet Land, the Musical premiered last year in St. Paul to rave reviews, and then toured the rest of the state, lovingly received by audiences wherever it went. Theater in the Twin Cities took the script to the National New Play Network, and with time it came to the attention of director Karen Lund, Associate Artistic Director at the Taproot Theatre, a match made in heaven. The topic of immigration is timely, and with the opening of the new Nordic Museum in May, the play seemed like a natural choice for Seattle audiences. Lund reached out to the Minnesota playwrights. Soon she and Hegge realized that they had studied together at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana together—another personal connection.

At the Taproot, Sweet Land moved onto a much more compact stage, with a thrust configuration, in which the audience surrounds the actors’ arena on three sides. Scenes are set with a minimum of props and the projection of simple images above the stage: a train station, a farmhouse, a barn, a church, a courthouse, etc. With the audience so close to the actors, there is a sense that they, too, are part of the rural Norwegian community of the play. While the scope and grandeur of the farmlands is lost in a theater setting, the actors are able to convey the expansiveness by looking beyond the audience into the fields, as the sounds of barnyard animals are at times heard in the background. Theater-goers are drawn into the immediacy of the moment with an intimate setting that nonetheless creates the illusion of openness needed to convey the story. Virtually every aspect of the Seattle production has been well conceived and executed—the casting, the stage design, orchestra, the sound, the lighting, and the choreography—to make for a perfectly enjoyable evening at the theater.

Those who liked the movie Sweet Land—and those for whom it’s new—will undoubtedly fall in love with Sweet Land, the Musical. Ten years ago, Post and Hegge had no idea that their play would become more than a regional production, but it has proved to be much more. With its energetic, emotional music and universal message, Sweet Land, the Musical brings the message of the tolerance, love, and humanity that we need to keep the American Dream alive.

Sweet Land, the Musical will play on the Jewell Mainstage at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St. through Aug. 18. For tickets and more information, call (206) 781-9707 or visit www.taproottheatre.org.

Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.

This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.