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History Theatre's 'Sweet Land' makes a bland transition from film to stage

© Rick Spaulding 2016

© Rick Spaulding 2016

An adaptation of Sweet Land could be bitingly relevant in the Trump era: a reminder that many of those now pointing accusatory fingers at immigrants are not far descended from newcomers who received a similarly xenophobic treatment.

Sweet Land, the musical

History Theatre
$25-$52

The new musical now playing at the History Theatre, though, turns Ali Selim’s quiet and spacious 2006 film into a broad spectacle that shows scant respect for the audience’s intelligence.

One of the rare movies to be both filmed and set in Minnesota, Sweet Land was itself an adaptation of Will Weaver’s 1989 short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” which writers Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge also used as a basis of their musical; they wrote the book, with lyrics by Hegge.

The strongest element of the Sweet Land musical is Dina Maccabee’s music. The composer’s complex and yearning songs have been arranged, by Robert Elhai, for a small ensemble of musicians who also ably serve as supporting actors in the cast. In the show’s most oddly charming scene, the musicians even play the parts of farm animals, drawing humorously convincing bleats and brays from their instruments.

Sweet Land tells the story of Inge (Ann Michels), a German woman who comes to Minnesota’s farm country in 1920 as a mail-order bride for Norwegian bachelor farmer Olaf (Robert Berdahl). Despite having lost her own family to the violence of World War I, Inge is treated with suspicion by the local authorities, who refuse to marry the couple until Inge somehow proves she’s not a hostile infiltrator.

It’s understandable that Post, who directed, would want to employ the strong talents of her lead actors — who also include Jon Andrew Hegge and Tinia Moulder as a friendly neighbor couple — but the seasoned actors are older than their onscreen counterparts, which changes the story’s dynamic in a way that the show otherwise ignores.

Post and Hegge make sure we don’t ignore anything else, though, driving each point home with a sledgehammer. The recent war, for example, is repeatedly emphasized as justification for the community’s distrust of Inge, to a degree that leaves no suggestion this small rural community might ever harbor any bias against anyone not hailing from a recent American military adversary.

Though the songs are attractive and nicely performed, they tend to belabor themes that are already obvious, sapping the show’s momentum and inviting awkwardness — particularly when Joe Chvala’s uninspired choreography kicks in. “Threshing Time” becomes a strange hoedown of shame, while “Ducks Dream” takes a rural metaphor way too far.

Even from line to line, the leaden dialogue stifles any ambiguity whatsoever. One particularly egregious moment comes after Inge takes it upon herself to do a man’s job: cranking a car engine into motion. As they drive off, Hegge turns to the audience and observes that the recent arrival is “strong — in more ways than one!” Yep. Right. We got it.

Particularly coming after the History Theatre’s Paper Dreams of Harry Chin — a much more nuanced immigration story that left the audience to judge the complex title character for ourselves — Sweet Land feels reductive. The dark harmonies of Maccabee’s score are as close as this musical comes to acknowledging that there might be more to these characters than meets the eye.