'Sweet Land the Musical': Rural debut is tonight where movie was made

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DAWSON — The immigrant story belongs to all of America, but western Minnesota has a special place in its telling in Ali Selim's movie "Sweet Land."

Locations near Dawson, Watson and Montevideo are where — in 2004 — he filmed the independent movie famous for both its story and the sweeping landscapes depicted on the screen.

And so in Luanne Fondell's estimation, it's only appropriate that western Minnesota will play host to the Greater Minnesota debut of "Sweet Land the Musical."

After a successful run on its stage in St. Paul, the History Theatre is taking the production on a tour of Greater Minnesota starting with its performance at 7:30 p.m. today at the Dawson Memorial Auditorium. "I couldn't be more thrilled to have the production coming to western Minnesota,'' said Fondell, director of the Dawson-Boyd Arts Association.

When Fondell learned the movie was being made into a musical, she made it a point to view it both while it was being produced and when it reached the stage. Inspired by what she saw, Fondell said she approached Karen Mueller, the History Theatre's managing director, and told her: "You know this production has to come to Dawson. You know that, don't you?''

Perrin Post hopes the performance in Dawson is just the first of many in locations all around Minnesota and beyond. One of her hopes in creating the rendition of "Sweet Land'' for the stage is to see it produced and adapted by theater companies across the country. The Taproot Theater in Seattle, Washington, recently picked up on it and is producing a version for its stage, she said.

Post originated the idea of making the movie into a musical. She saw the movie when it came out, but sat on the idea of converting it for the stage for a couple of years. She is a friend of Patrick Coyle, an actor in the movie, and she asked him to put her in contact with Ali Selim.

Post said she told Selim about her desire to produce a version for the stage, and how much she loved his movie. She had no plans at that point to make it a musical. "I just spoke from the heart and that was it,'' she said.

Post said the immigrant's story told in "Sweet Land'' appealed to her for many reasons. Her grandfather had emigrated from Finland to the United States as a 5-year-old boy. She incorporates a family's story about him being found on a piano in a honky tonk into the musical.

Snapshots from the movie inspired the songs for the stage, said Post.

She brought on lyricist and playwright Laurie Flanigan-Hegge to co-author the work. All told, it took seven years to put everything together and bring the production to the History Theatre stage, according to Post.

The movie tells the story of the relationship and challenges faced by Inge Altenburg and Olaf Torvik. Inge arrives from Germany intended to be the young farmer's bride. But she has arrived just a few years after World War I, and the German woman is greeted with suspicion. To add to the troubles, she lacks the proper immigration papers and is unable to marry.

Inge does not speak English when she arrives in Minnesota. Dialogue in the movie's start is sparse. Post said in the musical, Inge is able to tell the audience her thoughts in song.

Fondell believes a story about the immigrant experience is one that will resonate in western Minnesota, where immigrant roots run deep.

Post said she has discovered the theme of this story is timeless: The acceptance of someone different from our self. It's a theme that audiences everywhere can appreciate, she said.

Her ultimate goal is to see "Sweet Land the Musical'' reach off-Broadway in the city where so many immigrants first set foot in this country.