Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Sweet Land, the musical” proves as memorable & moving as the film October 13, 2017

The program cover from Thursday evening’s performance of “Sweet Land, the musical.”

 

SEATED ONLY ROWS from the intimate stage in an historic Faribault theater, I felt part of the set, part of the scene, part of the story that unfolded before me in “Sweet Land, the musical.”

What a gift to see this St. Paul-based History Theatre performance right here in my community, in the late 1800s Newhall Auditorium on the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. I appreciate that History Theatre, through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, is touring this show in Greater Minnesota. Even though I live only an hour from the Twin Cities metro, I don’t attend theater there due to cost and, well, the hassle of driving and parking. Tickets for the Faribault performance were only $20.

 

A promo from the “Sweet Land” film website.

 

I walked into Newhall Auditorium with high expectations. Ali Selim’s independent film “Sweet Land,” upon which the musical is based (and rooted in Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat”), rates as one of my all-time favorite movies. Filmed in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, the setting of wide skies and land, naturally draws me in.

But it is the challenges faced by German immigrant Inge Altenberg, come to America in 1920 to marry Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik, that make this story memorable and especially relevant today. As I listened to character Pastor Sorenson warn, “She (Inge) is not one of us,” I reflected on how we welcome, or don’t welcome, immigrants to Minnesota.

 

Faribault native Ann Michels in the lead role of Inge Altenberg alongside Robert Berdahl as Olaf Torvik on-stage at the History Theatre. While the movie was filmed in the Montevideo area of southwestern Minnesota, the musical sets the story farther north in the Park Rapids/Hubbard County area. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre.

 

I was especially pleased that the History Theatre performance did not deviate from the film storyline, following it right down to the cup of coffee brewed by Inge and which the pastor declared too strong for his liking. Details like these are important because they connect with the audience in a relatable way.

Performers also connected via music. A musician even stroked a cello (or maybe it was a bass; I’m uncertain) to mimic the moo of a cow during a barn scene. Music from a violin, piano and, surprise, an accordion, and more followed the storyline plot from fast-paced and dramatic to soulful and reflective.

I felt the intensity of emotions in Inge as she struggled to learn English, in Pastor Sorenson as his voice boomed suspicion from the pulpit, in Olaf as he battled to hold his feelings in check.

My nearness enhanced my experience, especially during a softball game when actors moved off the stage, so close their gloved hands nearly touched audience members. As the musical progressed, I saw sweat sliding down performers’ faces.

During an apple pie making scene, I almost expected the scent of cinnamon to waft through the theater. While it didn’t, I caught the nuances of the interaction between Inge and her neighbor. When Inge called the pie strudel, Brownie corrected her. “No, apple pie.”

That’s the thing about this story, this film, this musical—seemingly subtle exchanges prompt the audience to think, to ponder whether the coffee someone brews really is too strong or whether it is our reactions that run too strong.

 

FYI: “Sweet Land, the musical” is showing at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, and at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center in Worthington at 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 15, closing out the tour to communities in Greater Minnesota.

The lead actress role of Inge is played by Faribault native Ann Michels, who gave an outstanding performance to an appreciative hometown audience. The musical is part of the Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts Series offered at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. This marks my first time attending a show here and you bet I’ll be back. The Vienna Boys Choir comes to the historic Faribault theater at 7:30 p.m. on November 16.

Special thanks to my husband, Randy, for gifting me with tickets to “Sweet Land” for my birthday.

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“Sweet Land” coming to Faribault & I’m in September 18, 2017

I KICKED BACK in the recliner attempting to read while my eyelids fluttered in fatigue. Randy relaxed nearby on the sofa, eyes focused on the Faribault Daily News. He started to say something, then stopped. “Never mind,” he said. Now that grabbed my attention. But I didn’t press. I figured if he wanted to tell me whatever, he eventually would.

 

 

 

The next morning Randy flipped open the paper and pointed to a display ad for the Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts Series at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault. Targeting his finger on the October 12 performance of “Sweet Land, the musical,” he asked me to order tickets. This, he said, would be my birthday gift, albeit late and on his birthday. Mystery solved.

 

Ann Michels in the lead role alongside Robert Berdahl. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre.

 

I am delighted with this birthday gift to a musical I had hoped to see on stage at the History Theatre in St. Paul. But we never got there and now the performance starring Faribault native Anne Michels as German immigrant Inge Altenberg is coming to my community, to the campus of a noted college prep school just across the viaduct from my home.

The Faribault performance is among seven on a summer and fall travel tour of “Sweet Land” to towns in greater Minnesota. Other upcoming shows are in Detroit Lakes, Grand Rapids, Red Wing and Worthington.

 

A promo for the film from the Sweet Land website.

 

My excitement for this musical traces to my deep love of the award-winning independent film, Sweet Land, based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat.” The movie, filmed in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, tells the story of a mail-order bride and the challenges she faces as a German immigrant. The topic is especially relevant today.

Yet Sweet Land is much more. It’s a story that also focuses on the love between two people in a place where the land weaves a strong presence into the storyline.

To have this opportunity to see Sweet Land locally rather than travel into the metro is a gift, birthday or not.

 

FYI: Click here for more information about the History Theatre’s tour of “Sweet Land, the musical.” Click here for specific info about the Faribault show.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Take two: A second look at the film “Sweet Land” & immigration issues February 6, 2017

sweet-land-envelope-copy

The letter Inge received from Olaf, in the fictional film Sweet Land.

She is not one of us. We speak a common language. We have a common background, a common culture. She is not one of us.
#

We have to be careful about this sort of thing…German nationals. German nationals engage in prostitution. They harbor dangerous political convictions. Are you aware of the Espionage Act of 1916?
#

English only in the church. English.
#

You’re German. It’s a bad influence. You’re German. It’s a disruption to my community. You make coffee that’s too black.

She makes good coffee, not like the women in church.
#

I was fearful of her differences, but I was hopeful she could join us on our path….Do not allow your good lives to be poisoned by these two.
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This is German food?

No, just food.
#

You don’t have the papers.

sweetlandposter_mini

Promotional from Sweet Land website.

LAST WEEK I REWATCHED Sweet Land, an award-winning independent film released in 2005. The movie, based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” and filmed on my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, rates as a favorite of mine.

sweet-land-farmhouse-copy

Olaf Torvik’s home on the prairie. The film was shot in and around Montevideo, Minnesota.

I appreciate the early 1920s setting, the music, the story and, now, its relevancy to today. The above dialogue comes from Sweet Land, which focuses on the challenges faced by Inge Altenberg, summoned to America by Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik. He expects a Norwegian mail order bride as do others in the community. But Inge is not Norwegian; she is German.

Thereafter, the conflict begins with “She is not one of us.”

The land and love shape the story.

The land and love weave into this story. Here Inge and Olaf dance on the prairie.

I won’t give away the plot, which includes a love story. But I will tell you that I watched the movie this time from a much different perspective, in the context of current day immigration issues in our country. Sadness swept over me.

Please watch this thought-provoking, conversation-starting film. It’s a must-see whether you make coffee that’s good, judged as too black or you don’t brew coffee at all. It’s still coffee.

FYI: Sweet Land, the musical opens April 29 at History Theatre in St. Paul. It runs for five weeks, Thursday – Sunday, until May 28. Will I go? I’d love to…

RELATED: Saturday afternoon a sizable crowd gathered on the Rice County Courthouse grounds in my community for a peaceful protest. Please click here to watch the video, Faribault, Minnesota Immigration Ban Protest 2-4-17, posted by Terry Pounds. Faribault is home to many immigrants and refugees, including from Somalia.

A photographic exhibit of refugee children who fled Syria, leaving everything behind, is showing at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Photos for Where the Children Sleep were taken by award-winning Swedish photojournalist Magnus Wennman. In order to increase community access to the exhibit, the ASI is providing free admission on Wednesdays in February. The exhibit runs through March 5. Where the Children Sleep launches the Institute’s 2017 “Migration, Identity and Belonging Programming.”

Review © Copyright 2017 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling