From the solo guitar strains of its opening number to its elegiac ending, there’s a handmade quality to the new musical “Sweet Land” that is appropriate to both the material and its current home at downtown St. Paul’s History Theatre.
Based on Will Weaver’s short story ” A Gravestone Made of Wheat” and the 2005 indie film with which the play shares a title, “Sweet Land” centers on the story of Inge Altenberg, who crosses a sea and half a continent to arrive in southern Minnesota in 1920 to marry Olaf Torvik, a man she’s never met.
Trouble is, Inge is of German descent, a fact that does not play well in the rural Midwest, where the emotional echoes of World War I still reverberate. The couple at first try to conform to the community’s norms, then finally forge their own path.
Admittedly, the idea of staid, largely silent Scandahoovians bursting into song might not sound likely or even advisable as fodder for musical theater. But creators Perrin Post, Laurie Flanigan Hegge and Dina Maccabee — hewing relatively closely to Ali Selim’s screen play — mostly make it work.
You might roll your eyes at song titles like “You Took a Bath,” “Ducks Dream” and “Call Me Inge Torvik,” but the folk-infused tunes do what songs in musical theater are supposed to do: They give us insights into character’s minds (especially useful since Inge doesn’t speak English at the beginning of the play). They advance plot points, from baseball games to auctions.
And they emerge organically from the action: Many of the 13 cast members double as musicians, coming together in changing assemblages of strings, woodwinds and keyboards, arranged with aching beauty by Robert Elhai.
The show creaks in some places. Hegge’s lyrics can too literally illustrate the action and often lean on rudimentary ducky/lucky rhyme schemes. Joe Chvala’s choreography — especially a dream-ballet-ish scene featuring Inge near the end of the first act — tends to take the audience out of the moment rather than reinforce it. And, as with many new musicals, there are untaken opportunities to trim and streamline.
Ann Michels — who has been attached to this long-in-development musical since its early days — offers an Inge who is by turns feisty and vulnerable in a knowing and nuanced performance that both trusts and offers lovely voice to the character. Robert Berdahl’s vocal instrument doesn’t seem especially well-suited for the material, but his brooding, painfully introverted Olaf nicely counterbalances Michaels’ more buoyant energy.
Jon Andrew Hegge and Tinia Moulder aren’t exactly comic relief as a married couple who are Olaf’s stalwart friends and neighbors, but their light-hearted, salt-of-the-earth acceptance of and willingness to help newcomer Inge contrast to the wary, cool regard of the local pastor (played with a deft blend of…