'Arla Mae's Booya Wagon': New musical includes Ann Kim stew samples

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Aug. 28—What happens when Arla Mae learns her booya wagon, which she says was the "original" Minnesota food truck, could be headed for the Smithsonian, where it will claim its rightful place among important American artifacts? She's all in, but a letter from a museum official says she'll have to dust it off and throw one more booya party.

That's the setup for Sod House Theater's new musical, "Arla Mae's Booya Wagon," which will travel to 31 locations around the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota starting Sept. 1.

Busting out a batch of the savory stew that's become an iconic edible — a near sacrament for some — in the Upper Midwest could be a recipe for disaster for Arla Mae, a quirky northwoods character created by actor Sarah Agnew.

But the "stew that makes you feel brand new" (as one song in the musical claims) that will be served at many of the performances has a secret ingredient: The recipe was created by James Beard Award-winning chef Ann Kim (Pizza Lola, Young Joni, Hello Pizza, Sookie and Mimi). Agnew explains that Kim is a former actor and the two are longtime friends. When Agnew approached the world-class chef with the idea, she was all in. Audiences will get to sample the booya at some of the stops, where community volunteers will cook up a batch. Other spots will have food wagons that are likely to serve booya.

Agnew says she wasn't familiar with booya before starting work on "Arla Mae," but she likes the concept behind the concoction, which is a sort of community stew, often cooked up for fundraisers and gatherings, "a food event that's bigger than one thing."

As for Arla Mae, Agnew says she was inspired by her Canadian grandmother, who spend a lot of time in the woods. Agnew has a photo of her grandmother sitting in a lawn chair in her bathrobe drinking coffee outside a cabin.

"I just like that there's this woman in rural Minnesota and she makes big statements," Agnew says of Arla Mae. The character is larger than life, she adds, and deserves the legendary stature of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

The musical serves up Arla Mae's backstory in Koochiching, which Agnew admits she chose for a location because it's an irresistible name. Koochiching is the second-largest county in Minnesota.

The story of Arla Mae has been cooking for a couple of years, but was put on the back burner by COVID shutdowns. When the show couldn't debut last summer, Sod House was able to get grant money to connect with audiences and created three Arla Mae videos, "Cooking with Arla" (check them out at sodhousetheater.org).

"They threw me a line," Agnew says of the funding for the videos.

Sod House is working with Minnesota Cooks, a program created by Minnesota Farmers Union to connect local farmers with chefs and restaurants that highlight farm-fresh foods on their menus.

Arla Mae's booya wagon — a wooden structure on wheels with a fold-out window that's currently in the backyard of Sod House co- artistic directors Luverne Seifert and Darcey Engen — will travel to performances. The cast will be in a 10-passenger van hauling the wagon to outstate performances, Seifert says.

While most theater companies have had to adjust to take shows outdoors and on tour during the pandemic, Sod House shows are mostly outside, Seifert points out, including 2019's "Swede Hollow Ghost Sonata," which was staged at the St. Paul park; "An Enemy of the People," which was performed in 16 locations from 2017-19 and performed in city halls, outdoor parks and courthouses around Minnesota; and "Peer Gynt," performed in park areas in three outstate Minnesota towns in the summer of 2014.

Seifert says he and Engen are taking on a supporting role at Sod House and working with artists who want to create. They're producers for this show.

The original music for "Arla Mae" was written by Eric Jensen, with lyrics by Agnew. While Koochiching may be fun to say, it's not always easy to work into song lyrics, as the cast sang their way through the tunes at a recent rehearsal: "KOO-cha-ching"? "KOOCHA-ching"? Most of the cast have worked together in productions at the Guthrie, Ten Thousand Things, the Jungle and elsewhere, and the collaboration is all part of developing new work, Agnew says.

Jim Lichtscheidl on mandolin and guitar, Elise Langer on ukulele, Oogie Push tap dancing on a board on the lawn, Eriq Nelson on tin whistle, saxophone, melodica and Agnew with a bullhorn and kazoo — actors tested the music during rehearsal claiming Arla Mae cooks so fine it will blow your mind. Song snippets, harmonies. music sheets flapping in the backyard wind and lots of laughs — after 18 months away from the stage, the joy of working together bubbled like a tasty pot of, well, you know.

'Arla Mae's Booya Wagon'

— When: Sept. 1-Oct. 10

— Where: 31 locations, including Folwell Park in Minneapolis, St. Paul Urban Roots, Swede Hollow Park and Frogtown Farm in St. Paul; Silverwood Park in St. Anthony; and outside the metro in Prescott, Wis., and in Minnesota Hastings, Dundas, Pelican Rapids, Spring Grove, Faribault, Cannon Falls, Crookston and more.

— Tickets: Some shows are free but reservations are required and donations are requested; sodhousetheater.org or 612-414-2032

— Running time: 75 minutes

— Plus: Food trucks will be available at some of the performances for a pre-show bite. Copies of the new Minnesota Cooks recipe book, "The Farmer and the Chef: Farm Fresh Minnesota Recipes and Stories" will be available at most performances, with the authors, Claudine Arndt and Katie Cannon, present to sign.

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