‘Sweet Land, the Musical’ at MAPAC Oct. 15
WORTHINGTON — Tilling the land, planting roots and building community: These themes permeate “Sweet Land, the Musical” and are familiar to every resident of southwestern Minnesota.
“It’s a great story about what immigrants faced when establishing family farms here 100 years ago,” said Tammy Makram, managing director of Worthington’s Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center.
“Because it involves Minnesota history, and a community rallying together to try and save farms, this is still relevant today, not to mention entertaining and appropriate for audiences of all ages.”
“Sweet Land, the Musical” is an acclaimed History Theatre production that debuted in St. Paul last spring, and a Minnesota Arts Board Touring Grant is bringing the show this month to outstate cities like Detroit Lakes, Grand Rapids, Faribault, Red Wing — and Worthington, at 7 p.m. Oct. 15.
“We were so fortunate to be on this fall’s tour of ‘Sweet Land,’” agreed Makram, noting that some might have seen the 2005 film of the same name that starred Alan Cumming and Elizabeth Reaser, who went on to play Esme Cullen in the “Twilight” movies.
“Sweet Land, the Musical” closely echoes the movie’s plot, which focuses on Norwegian-American bachelor farmer Olaf Torvik (portrayed by Robert O. Berdahl) and his “mail-order” Norwegian bride, Inge Altenburg (the luminous Ann Michels), who turns out to be not quite as Norwegian as originally thought.
Instead, Inge is of German descent — and that was a major obstacle in rural Minnesota in 1920, when anti-German sentiment following the Great War remained strong.
The Ali Selim-directed film was based on the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” by Minnesota writer Will Weaver. In turn, writers Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan-Hegge created the musical version of “Sweet Land” for stage.
“Perrin got the rights to it, and it was my pleasure to join the creative team,” said Flanigan-Hegge, a Twin Cities-based playwright, lyricist and actor.
“Our biggest challenge is that we were asked to keep the movie’s story line intact, so people who saw the movie will discover the musical is the same story they know from the film.”
But depicting sweeping fields of grain and broad prairie landscapes is more difficult on a structured stage, not to mention working within the bounds of lead characters like a stoic, laconic bachelor farmer and an English language-poor German bride-to-be.
“That’s where the music came in,” said Flanigan-Hegge, the show’s lyricist.
“We were true to the ideals of Ali Selim’s aesthetic and the heart of Will Weaver’s original short story, but it fell to composer Dina Maccabee to evoke the feeling of space, expansiveness and sky aurally,” she explained.
“Audience members told us, ‘You really captured it, but it’s happening musically instead of visually.’”
By allowing Inge and Olaf to express themselves and find their “voices” through song, Post and Flanigan-Hegge manage to convey the heart of the characters and their stories.
“We needed our audience to hear the characters’ interior selves, so we let them sing even though they can’t always share their thoughts by speaking,” Flanigan-Hegge said.
Local theater enthusiasts may already be fans of actors featured in “Sweet Land, the Musical” without even realizing it.
For instance, Berdahl, who portrays Olaf Torvik, has been a Guthrie Theater regular for nearly 20 years and recently was the Beast in the Chanhassen Dinner Theater’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Michels, inhabiting the immigrant Inge, was the title character in Chanhassen’s “Mary Poppins” a few years ago and had a key supporting role (Yvonne) in the Guthrie’s “Sunday in the Park with George” last summer.
And versatile Twin Cities actor Jon Hegge fills the shoes of Frandsen, the role Alan Cumming assumed in the film version.
“This cast is phenomenal,” assured Flanigan-Hegge. “We’re thrilled to be taking this production to Greater Minnesota because it really belongs to people who live on the land.
“’Sweet Land’ is very much about what it means to be connected to place, community and our past, and to be rooted in the present,” she continued.
“It addresses where we belong, who is ‘other’ and how we treat people who are new in our communities. These are questions we are still asking.”
“Sweet Land, the Musical” comes to Worthington’s Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. There is a discount for advance purchase, with special rates for students and families. Visit the box office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, call 507-376-9101 or go to friendsoftheauditorium.com to purchase tickets.