Shall we dwell on the negatives first? It’s what Norwegians would do. Sweet Land, the Musical, which Taproot Theatre is offering through August 18 in its West Coast premiere, recounts a German mail-order bride’s struggle to assimilate into a Norwegian-American, sternly Lutheran, rigidly puritan farming community in Minnesota in 1920—no simple task while the wounds of WWI are still fresh. The tale of Inge and her taciturn husband Olaf was told first in a 1990 bare-bones short story by Will Weaver, then expanded into the 2005 movie of the same name, an underappreciated masterpiece. I can’t think of another film that really gets the region—and, yes, some things about it haven’t changed in a century—like Sweet Land does.
The conversion stumbles twice. First, book writers Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan-Hegge layered an unnecessary strain of cuteness—generic kid stuff, like a cloying talk-to-the-animals barn scene—atop the story’s prairie austerity. It takes you out of Minnesota. This sense of place, so vital to the story’s success, comes through only occasionally, but effectively, primarily through Dina Maccabee’s music. Paring a song’s accompaniment down to just one instrument, say accordion or violin, is an insightful and touching analogue to the locale’s people-of-few-words spirit; it takes just one chugging fiddle rhythm to evoke a life-changing train journey out of an actress sitting on a bench. Maccabee’s other stroke of genius was to morph an auctioneer’s patter into an intricate a cappella ensemble.
Second, the musical’s climax needs rethinking. In the film, a handful of farmers pool their resources to help Olaf with a sudden financial crisis after being talked into it by a socialist proselytizer (also unpopular in the town). It’s a passing plot point, downplayed so that no one in the audience has time to ask how these men managed to gather a decade’s income in cash overnight, or why they didn’t do this earlier for Olaf’s best friend Frandsen, also threatened with foreclosure. In the musical, the whole town chips in, which requires them to suddenly change their mind about Inge after months of being judgy and ungenerous. Inflating this into an It’s a Wonderful Life finale exacerbates the implausibility.
But the musical’s charms are many, and Taproot does nicely by it. Molli Corcoran and Tyler Todd Kimmel spark as Inge and Olaf, while the best Minnesota accent comes from Jenny Cross in the small role of Gail. Video animations above and behind the stage and director Karen Lund’s nimble staging clarify the frequent shifts of time and scene (a framing device is set in 1975). The parallels between America’s treatment of immigrants in 1920 and 2018 are left for you to draw; the significant difference, of course, is that Inge leaves her parents voluntarily.