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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A must-see holiday play: The Santa Diaries December 10, 2014

I THOUGHT I MIGHT make it through a local holiday theatrical production without crying.

But I didn’t.

The Santa Diaries actors, left to right, Thomas Drenth as Timmy; Samuel Temple as Marley the Dog; and Michael Lambert as Will Hawes. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

The Santa Diaries actors, left to right, Thomas Drenth as Timmy; Samuel Temple as Marley the Dog; and Michael Lambert as Will Hawes. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

Saturday evening found me seated on the far right side of the Bahl Family Auditorium, near the back of the Paradise Center for the Arts restored theatre in historic downtown Faribault, wiping away tears during The Merlin Players performance of The Santa Diaries.

The play penned by Mala Burt and Laura Ambler and debuting in Minnesota, in Faribault, resounds with the age-old theme of discovering what is truly most important in life.

For main character Will Hawes, played by seasoned actor Michael Lambert, that is deciphering whether he truly values his success as a Hollywood actor over love and family. A return to his small hometown at Christmas causes Hawes to reexamine his choices in life.

During an especially creative scene in which Hawes is dreaming, he is advised to “open your heart and listen.”

This holiday chorus line will have you laughing out loud. Photo by Edward Brown, courtesy of The Merlin Players.

This holiday chorus line will put you in the Christmas mood and have you laughing out loud. Photo by Edward Brown, courtesy of The Merlin Players.

That could be the mantra for a production that mixes serious topics with humor. From the Hotdish Ladies (“Casseroles” in the original script, but this is Minnesota) bearing Sweet Potato Hotdish to a chorus line to the moment that made me cry—hearing the inner thoughts of Martha (played by Stephanie Weiss) wanting nothing more than her family home for Christmas—The Santa Diaries touches the heart.

You will laugh. You may cry. And, with absolute certainty, you will consider your own family and your life priorities as The Santa Diaries unfolds.

The older I grow, the less I care about the worldly trappings of Christmas. Like Martha, I just want my family home for Christmas. That won’t happen. Not precisely on Christmas Day. But we will have 1 ½ days together prior. And I am grateful for that. (The college son arrives home from Boston in exactly eight days.)

While The Santa Diaries presents a rather predictable happy ending—hey, you can’t have a holiday show that ends badly—real life isn’t that way. I know that. You know that. Life is messy. Work and distance and disagreements and busyness keep families apart.

But there is hope. People change. Situations change. We grow older and wiser. And, like main character Will Hawes, we eventually figure it out, that family is more important than money and success and work and schedules and, well, whatever else fills the time we could be with those we love.

The Paradise Center for the Arts is the cultural hub for theater and art in a historic theatre along Faribault's Central Avenue.

The Paradise Center for the Arts is the cultural hub for theater and art in a historic theatre along Faribault’s Central Avenue. Each December a holiday show is featured. This photo is from a past performance.

FYI: Additional performances of The Santa Diaries are set for 7:30 p.m. December 11, 12 and 13 and for 2 p.m. December 14. Julianna Skluzacek is the artistic director for the play featuring 28 passionate performers ranging from elementary age to decades older.  Call (507) 332-7372 for tickets from noon – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday or noon – 8 p.m. Thursdays. Tickets may also be purchased an hour before show times. I wouldn’t wait, though. Tickets are selling quickly.

The playwrights are flying into Minnesota from the East Coast on Friday and will be here for all three weekend performances.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Santa Diaries photos copyright of Edward Brown/The Merlin Players and published here with permission.

 

Believing in the magic of Santa and of community theatre December 11, 2013

ALTHOUGH I’VE TRAVELED TO NEW YORK, albeit only once and in the late 1970s, I’ve never been to Macy’s.

I’ve watched the Macy’s Day parade, though, on television and this year heard a brief first person account from my 19-year-old son. He attends college in the Boston area and spent his Thanksgiving break in the Big Apple.

The historic Paradise Center for the Arts in downtown Faribault.

The historic Paradise Center for the Arts in downtown Faribault.

Saturday evening, thanks to the Paradise Community Theatre’s production of Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical, I visited the aforementioned New York department store and watched (imaginatively speaking) a portion of the parade.

Plus I was swept into the holiday spirit by songs such as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and by the acting of 31 gifted performers. The cast includes a lot of dedicated young actors and actresses who bring abundant energy and talent to the stage.

With the exception of a cold theater (due to furnace problems), a not-so-good seat (I waited too long to reserve my ticket), and occasional difficulty hearing the singers above the orchestra, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

Malia Hunt as Susan Walker and Jerry Fox as Kris Kringle. Photo by Betsy Cole Photography and courtesy of the Paradise Center for the Arts.

Malia Hunt as Susan Walker and Jerry Fox as Kris Kringle. Photo by Betsy Cole Photography and courtesy of the Paradise Center for the Arts.

This classic Christmas story, which was unfamiliar to me (I know, I know), thrusts you right into the magic of the holiday season. Do you believe in Santa Claus? Do you believe in love? You will after viewing this splendid performance of Miracle on 34th Street in which Kris Kringle claims that he truly is Santa Claus. Northfield resident Jerry Fox portrays as convincing of a Santa Claus as you’ll ever see, both in appearance and demeanor.

And adorable 10-year-old Malia Hunt of Faribault exudes absolute confidence in her main character role as Susan Walker, the little girl who wants a father for Christmas, along with a farmhouse, a swing in the backyard and a cow.

The sets are constantly changing in the performance. This set shows the Macy's Department Store desk of Doris Walker (Sydney Place-Sallstrom), left, and Doris and Susan Walker's apartment, center stage.

The sets are constantly changing in the performance. This set shows the Macy’s Department Store desk of Doris Walker (Sydney Place-Sallstrom), left, and Doris and Susan Walker’s apartment, center stage.

My favorite line in the entire show comes from Jackson Hemann of Medford, who plays Thomas Mara, Jr., the young son of a New York district attorney determined to prove Kris Kringle is not Santa.

When Kringle’s attorney, Fred Gaily (Mickey Morstad), asks Thomas why he believes in Santa, the young boy replies: “My mommy told me so.”

Ah, to possess such child-like faith.

“Faith,” Kris Kringle declares during the performance, “is believing in something when your common sense tells you not to.”

An artistic interpretation of Miracle on 34th Street graces a front window at the Paradise Center for the Arts, which reflects some of downtown Faribault's historic buildings.

An artistic interpretation of Miracle on 34th Street graces a front window at the Paradise Center for the Arts with some of downtown Faribault’s historic buildings reflected on the glass.

When the show ended at 10 p.m., children clustered around Fox. Don’t try telling them he isn’t really Santa Claus.

They believe in the magic of Santa Claus, just like I believe in the magic of theatre to transport me from Central Avenue in Faribault, Minnesota, to 34th Street in New York City.

FYI: Additional performances of Miracle on 34th Street are set for 7:30 p.m. this Thursday – Saturday, December 12 – 14, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 15, at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault. Click here for more information. As of early Tuesday afternoon, only limited seating remained for the Friday and Saturday shows with the Sunday afternoon performance nearly sold out.

My husband and I attended Miracle on 34th Street compliments of an event hosted by South Rice County Chapter of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. This did not influence my decision to review the performance nor the content of my review.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo of Jerry Fox and Malia Hunt by Betsy Cole Photography and courtesy of the Paradise Center for the Arts.

 

A Wisconsin school honors orphans via “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” April 25, 2013

The main building at the orphanage, built in 1886, housed offices, a reception room, chapel/auditorium, boys' cottage, living quarters for employees, a sewing room, attic and linen storage. This main portion today serves as the Owatonna city administration building.

The main building at the Owatonna orphanage, built in 1886, housed offices, a reception room, chapel/auditorium, boys’ cottage, living quarters for employees, a sewing room, attic and linen storage. This main portion today serves as the Owatonna city administration building. File photo from December 20, 2011, blog post.

THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY miles from the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum in Owatonna, a group of Lutheran school students in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, just southwest of Milwaukee, are honoring orphan children of the 1920s and 1930s.

The story of how this came to be involves me, a dedicated and creative middle school language arts teacher/musical theater director, and a bit of personal family history.

Several weeks ago, teacher Judy Lillquist, a native of Le Sueur, MN., who has lived in Wisconsin for 20-plus years, commented on a December 2011 blog post I published after a visit to the Owatonna museum. (Click here to read that story.)  She discovered my orphanage stories while researching for her school’s production of  Annie Jr. My posts included photos of simple orphans’ beds in a stark orphanage bedroom. (Click here to read my second orphanage post.)

The boys' bedrooms are stark, devoid of anything homey. This small room slept three.

This photo of an orphan’s bed inspired Lillquist to create “The Orphan Bed Exhibit.” The orphans were not allowed to sleep on their pillows; those were just for show. File photo.

Those orphan bed photos inspired Lillquist to work with her students in creating “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” which accompanies the school’s spring musical, Annie Jr., showing this Friday and Saturday at Hales Corners Lutheran Middle School.

Working with middle schoolers on a musical seems challenging enough. So I really have to admire Lillquist’s efforts to personally connect her students and audience members to the plight of actual orphans via “The Orphan Bed Exhibit.” The exhibit includes a synopsis of the inspiration behind the project.

The orphan bed designed by Lillquist.

The orphan bed designed by Lillquist.

Using cardboard boxes, paper, tape, glue, clearance bed sheets and other everyday materials, Lillquist’s sixth graders built 20 orphan beds. Those attending the musical will see silent orphan statues (students), attired in tattered dresses, stationed next to those beds.

Beds were packed tight into sparse bedrooms in the cottage.

Beds were packed tight into sparse bedrooms in the Owatonna orphanage cottages. File photo.

The scene is meant to make a powerful impact. Lillquist explains:

In my research for the play, I began formulating an idea of somehow showing our audience how important it is for us to count our blessings. I for one am very thankful for a warm home and comfortable bed. It gives me a heavy heart knowing that the orphan children of those days were not so fortunate, my husband’s dear grandmother among them.

…The beds pay homage to the orphan boys and girls of the 1920s and 30s. Our plucky little orphan girls get to play that role for a little while. Some children played that role their entire lives. This is simply to honor their memory.

A photo of some of the school's residents on exhibit in Cottage 11, which housed boys ages 6 - 13.

An Owatonna school orphans photo displayed in Cottage 11, which housed boys ages 6 – 13.

For Lillquist’s family, this is personal as her husband’s grandmother and siblings were placed in a state orphanage after their mother died. Lillquist shares:

Once placed, she would wave across the lunchroom at her two brothers. When she was finally fortunate enough to be adopted, her new family decided one year to go back to the orphanage to adopt her sister. That was her birthday present. She was in her 80s when she told us this story.

She never saw her brothers again once she left the orphanage and she could not bear to tell us what eventually happened to her sister.

Can you imagine?

I expect “The Orphan Bed Exhibit,” combined with the theatrical performance of Annie Jr., will drive home the message Lillquist intends:

Our families are blessed and that’s the message of the exhibit.

FYI: Hales Corners Lutheran Middle School, 12300 West Janesville Road, Hales Corners, Wisconsin, presents “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” at 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 26, and at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27. The curtain rises on Annie Jr. a half hour later.

Thank you to Hales Corners students, and especially to Lillquist, for their dedication to this project. I am honored to have been, in some small way, a part of this undertaking.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
“The Orphan Bed Exhibit” image courtesy of Judy Lillquist

 

The tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” November 30, 2011

THE PROMO READS:

A delightful holiday musical for the entire family. It’s the true story of a Great Lakes schooner, whose captain risks life and limb to transport Christmas trees to the German immigrants in Chicago during the late 1800’s. The result was the Christmas tree tradition spread throughout the Midwest and America.

Attend The Merlin Players’ production of The Christmas Schooner, opening Friday, December 2, at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault, and you’ll never view a Christmas tree in quite the same way. Guaranteed, you’ll appreciate your tree a whole lot more and the ease with which you can pull yours from storage, browse in a Christmas tree lot or tromp through the woods to chop down your own.

Allow me to take you 6 ½ hours away from Faribault to eastern Wisconsin, to Rawley Point, a piece of land that juts into Lake Michigan in Point Beach State Forest five miles north of Two Rivers.

Rawley Point at Point Beach State Forest along Lake Michigan in early August.

Off this point 26 ships sank or became stranded, including the steamship Vernon, which broke up in stormy waters in 1877 with 52 lives lost. Only one seaman survived.

Then there’s the Rouse Simmons schooner, widely known as “The Christmas Tree Ship.” With Captain Herman Schuenemann at the helm, the ship left Thompson, Michigan, on November 22, 1912, bound for Chicago with a holiday cargo of Upper Peninsula Christmas trees. (Sorry, but I can’t explain the discrepancy in dates between the play promo and the true date of the schooner’s demise.)

A painting of the Christmas Tree Schooner at the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum in Two Rivers.

The schooner, with 16 crew members, never reached Chicago. Not until 59 years later was she found in 170 feet of water off Rawley Point, her Christmas trees still stashed in her hold. The schooner remains preserved in the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

The beach at Rawley Point on a Sunday afternoon in August.

Walking Rawley Point beach on an August afternoon, the only hazards are stinky dead fish and driftwood.

The U.S. Coast Guard's erector style lighthouse at Rawley Point rises 113 feet above Lake Michigan. The light is one of the largest and brightest on the Great Lakes and can be seen from 19 miles away.

This past summer my family visited Point Beach State Forest and attractions in nearby Two Rivers, all within an hour’s drive of my second daughter’s home in Appleton, Wisconsin. On that Sunday afternoon, strolling along the sandy beach near Rawley Point Lighthouse, it seemed impossible that Lake Michigan could transform into stormy waters that would become a grave for so many.

But it did.

Now you can experience the touching and tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” via The Merlin Players’ The Christmas Schooner production. I saw this performance several years ago at the Paradise.

I cried.

I’ve never cried before at a play.

The historic Rogers Street Fishing Village includes the 1886 Two Rivers' North Pier Lighthouse, to the right.

Inside the Coast Guard museum, a worker points to a model of the Rawley Point Lighthouse, which was moved from a French exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 to Rawley Point.

You'll find information and artifacts from area shipwrecks at the fishing village and museum.

FYI: Performances of The Christmas Schooner are set for 7:30 p.m. December 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10 and at 2 p.m. December 4 and 11 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault. Admission is $14 for adults and $9 for those 12 and under. For tickets, call (507) 332-7372 or stop in during box office hours, from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday or from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday.

I’d highly-recommend buying tickets in advance.

CLICK HERE for information about the Rouse Simmons schooner from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

CLICK HERE for info about Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

CLICK HERE for info on Point Beach State Forest.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post I wrote about the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling