Taproot's well-cast, engaging chamber musical is more than a celebration of Midwestern acreage and hardy farm folk; it contextualizes its entertaining romance within the xenophobia that can erupt in small communities toward a newcomer who is, as one of the songs proclaims, “not one of us.”
Compact, folksy musicals set in rural America are a specialty of Taproot Theatre. And the show “Sweet Land” fits right in at the company’s Greenwood playhouse.
The well-cast, engaging chamber musical features an appealing romance, down-home characters and some vigorous Minnesota wheat threshing. And, not surprisingly, it reaps a happy ending.
But there’s more here than a celebration of Midwestern acreage and hardy farm folk. Written by Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge, with music by Dina Maccabee and lyrics by Hegge, “Sweet Land, the Musical” contextualizes its entertaining romance within the xenophobia that can erupt in small communities toward a newcomer who is, as one of the songs proclaims, “not one of us.”
The fresh arrival in Park Rapids, Minnesota, is Inge Altenberg (Molli Corcoran), a young German native sent abroad by her Scandinavian employers as a mail-order bride for their son Olaf Torvik (Tyler Todd Kimmel), a shy bachelor farmer. It is 1920, and America is still mourning the losses of its sons to German forces in World War I. So the vivacious, non-English-speaking Inge is greeted with suspicion and resentment — so much so that her pending marriage to Olaf faces unexpected hurdles.
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In our current era, it isn’t a stretch to imagine this sort of nationalistic (though in this case, nonracial) bigotry. And it surely did exist in the American Midwest of the past, as explored in Will Weaver’s “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” the short story that is the basis of the musical “Sweet Land” as well as an indie film of the same title.
The show’s authors highlight other forms of discrimination, too, including the stiff-necked censures of a local minister, Pastor Sorenson (Hugh Hastings); the hard-nosed practices the local banker (Michael Winters) wields against financially struggling farm families; and the suspicions aroused by an organizer (Eric Dobson), whose efforts to unite farmers in a mutually beneficial agricultural co-op get him branded a “rabble rouser” — and, worse, “a socialist.”
These conflicts unfold in tandem with the quietly evolving relationship between Corcoran’s vivaciously appealing Inge and Kimmel’s initially introverted and taciturn Olaf. These two players have fine chemistry, and convey the incremental moments (amusing and serious) that draw this prearranged couple slowly together.
Local stage regular Corcoran impressively alternates between speaking fluent German and halting English with (apparent) ease. Moreover, her luscious singing voice lends heft to a score that leans the most on Inge, as in the lovely “Peace and Quiet/Northern Lights” ballad, the whimsically comic “Ducky” and “Call Me Inge Torvik,” a defining trio that also features Hastings’ rich baritone.
But in a show about community, it’s fitting that much of the score is sung by the full 10-member ensemble, which also includes the buoyant Chris Shea and April Poland as Inge’s first real friends in her new homeland.
And though there’s some hum-along, toe-tapping music you might expect, Maccabee’s tunes also have complex vocal lines, angular melodies and unexpected harmonies. The blend of voices here isn’t consistently balanced, but the score has welcome surprises and reach. (“The Auction” is especially clever, and reminiscent of the syncopated “Rock Island” number that opens “The Music Man.”)
Taproot’s capable resident director Karen Lund again smoothly fits a good deal of action (and a bit of energetic dancing) onto Taproot’s small stage. And Mark Lund’s scenic design uses a playful animated projection to suggest the terrain of Minnesota wheat country.
Though it generally avoids sinking into mushy sentimentality, “Sweet Land” does unnecessarily tie together every strand of strife in a neat bow at the end. That includes the fate of the Torvik farm — at least until 1975, when it is in the hands of a grandson of Olaf and Inge. And what of the uphill struggles facing family farms and many immigrants in today’s America? That’s a musical we haven’t seen yet.
“Sweet Land, the Musical,” through Aug. 18; Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $27-$50; 206-781-9707, taproottheatre.org