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Stories of America have been mined for musical gold many times. In Sweet Land, the musical, that gold takes on a hue of wheat. The setting is Park Rapids, Minnesota. A married couple is packing up the remains of a farm home. Lars’ grandmother had died two years earlier. Mementos from the past such as a photograph and a letter dated July, 1920 are the catalyst to a trip back in time.
Olaf Torvik (Robert Berdahl) was farming his land alone. He was introduced to Inge Altenberg (Ann Michels) through relatives back in Europe. From a written letter, she came to America at his asking carrying a gramophone and speaking not a word of English. After landing here, she jumps on a train to the middle of the country for a new life.
This musical had its world premier in 2017. The History Theatre is streaming that production this month. The timing is ideal. As our nation clashes over immigration policy, the themes of this show resonate loudly. Sweet Land is a sweet little show that takes time to reveal goodness and grace within people. Sweet Land also addresses hardship and conflict before healing.
A violinist is center stage as the jittery strings underscore tension. World War I is over. In 1917, Germans represented the largest single ethnic group in Minnesota. German Americans were evaluated for their patriotic attitudes supported by a network of spies from the newly created Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. Into this world arrives Inge, a German.
Olaf and Inge had agreed to marry but the church cannot sanction such a union. The priest does not know her and she has no references. Even the Judge will not marry them, saying “Why did she leave Germany? She is not one of us.” While all of this sounds like dour melodrama, there is a lightness to the storytelling which keeps the show in the zone of entertaining and heartwarming. The struggles are real but our ability to consider them is refreshingly pleasant. Both actors have great chemistry in addition to fully formed characterizations. The whole cast and the musicians were additive to enjoying this piece.
The book was written by Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge. Words create vivid imagery such as “tired, bedraggled, covered in dust.” The characters and situations are often humorous. When Olaf shoots a pheasant, he tries to hand it over to Inge. “You shoot, you pluck,” she retorts. My favorite outburst written into the book was the “Nein” speech.
The plentiful songs in Sweet Land were written by Laurie Flanigan Hegge (lyrics) and Dina Maccabee (music). There are nice nods to music and expressions from the period. I thought I heard a few flashes of the scores for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Brokeback Mountainburied in there. The dissonant tones of the score were very effective.
This musical was directed by Perrin Post. For a small scale show, many transitions were particularly fluid such as a kitchen scene evolving into a porch scene. The technical elements, particularly the lighting (Mike Grogan) and sound effects (C Andrew Mayer), were noticeably excellent. The neighbor’s tractor ride can only be described as Green Acres realness with overalls instead of a suit and tie.
Quite a few themes emerge from this small tale of two people and the rural farming community that surrounds them. What does it mean to really care about your fellow citizens? What assumptions do we make about people based upon their race or background? Is it properly called apple pie or is it really strudel?
The vilification of immigrants and also those who seem different than us remains a core American value, sadly. Sometimes it is therapeutic to step back and listen. People on both sides of a war might not simply be blind followers of their governments or political parties. The search for personal happiness and fulfillment is deftly explored in Sweet Land, the musical. Let’s hope America can find its way there too.
Sweet Land, the musical is streaming through October 22, 2020 from History Theatre at Home. You can choose the level of your ticket price.