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'Sweet Land' captures immigrant experience

Ann Michels plays immigrant Inge in “Sweet Land, the Musical,” coming to the Sheldon Theatre on Oct. 14, 2017.

"Sweet Land, the Musical," billed as a story about "land, love, and the American immigrant experience," comes to the Sheldon Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14.

A St. Paul History Theatre production currently touring Minnesota communities, the musical is a stage adaptation of the independent film "Sweet Land" by Ali Selim and the short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat" by Will Weaver.

"It follows the movie and uses details from Will's book" to flesh out some details, according to Perrin Post, who turned the screenplay into the unique format that works for live theater.

"Sweet Land" tells the story of Inge Altenberg, who journeys to America in 1920 to marry bachelor farmer Olaf Torvik — a man she has never met.

The problem, according to Sheldon officials, is that in the wake of World War I, Inge's German heritage turns her new neighbors in southern Minnesota against the match. Even the local pastor disapproves.

"The determined young immigrant and her stoic farmer fight for their lives, facing their own misgivings and the harshness of an unforgiving land," according to a press release.

While the production follows the film's story line, it uses "book ends" rather than flashbacks to address the fact that the play begins and ends in 1975, but the heart of the story takes place in the 1920s, Post noted.

The musical received positive reviews when it debuted last spring in the Twin Cities.

Ann Michels, who plays Inge, was described by a St. Paul Pioneer Press reviewer as "feisty and vulnerable" with a lovely voice. Robert Berdahl, as Olaf, is "brooding, painfully introverted."

New to the cast for this tour performance is Tod Petersen in the role of the pastor.

The Star Tribune especially liked the way cast members "pour out their hearts and inner lives in song." Dina Maccabee composed music that is described as "evocative, poignant and, yes, sweet." Songs range from folksy to romantic.

Maccabee, a California violinist, composed more for strings than for a typical pit orchestra, Post said, plus there is a piano. Some of the actors are also musicians.

"I wanted it to be all organic," she said. Not only do the actors also play instruments, but they sing as well. "They needed to be part of the community."

According to the Pioneer Press, "the folk-infused tunes do what songs in musical theater are supposed to do: They give us insights into characters' minds. ... They advance plot points, from baseball games to auctions."

Maccabee created a CD with all-instrumental versions of songs in the show, Post said. It will be for sale at the performance.

Post has enjoyed Minnesotans' reactions to "Sweet Land."

"Everyone connects to this story," she explained. "Everyone has immigrant relatives. People come up to us and start telling us their stories."

Tickets are $30-$35, students $15. For reservations visit the box office, call 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.

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