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A New York Theatre Guide to... Girl from the North Country!
The Bob Dylan-inspired musical finally lands on the Great White Way...
In the summer of 2017, Conor McPherson’s new theatrical masterpiece known as Girl from the North Country received its world premiere at The Old Vic in London… almost 4,000 miles away from the show’s setting of Duluth, Minnesota (which also happens to be the hometown of one Bob Dylan)! The music legend’s greatest hits are uniquely showcased in this production which now, following acclaimed runs in the West End, Toronto and Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, is officially open at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. The gently devastating masterpiece has been captivating Bob Dylan aficionados and keen theatregoers alike there since February 7, 2020.
What’s it all about?
Perhaps better described as “a play with music” rather than your typical jukebox musical, Girl from the North Country is set in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression in the aforementioned Duluth, Minnesota. The story takes place in a guesthouse inhabited by a collection of wayward souls, some passing and some permanent. At the centre of the piece we meet the down-on-his-luck guesthouse proprietor Nick Laine, his wife Elizabeth (riddled with a form of dementia), his alcohol-soaked son Gene and his nineteen year old, adopted, black daughter Marianne, who is also pregnant. The Depression has taken its toll on those that dwell in the guesthouse and desperate times call for desperate measures. Nick tries to strike a deal with a much older citizen of Duluth, Mr. Perry, to marry off his adopted daughter, whilst he struggles with Elizabeth’s condition and Gene’s inability to find a job and earn a living. The supporting cast of characters includes a formerly incarcerated boxer striving to get back on his feet and make a comeback, a suspicious bible-flogging reverend, the Burke family and their feeble-minded son, and the widow Mrs. Neilsen, Nick’s not-so-secret lover. Each of these colorful personalities is in search of their own way out of this real-life purgatory… by any means necessary.
Who’s starring in it?
Stealing the show, arguably, as Elizabeth Laine is Tony & Academy Award nominee & two-time Emmy Award winner Mare Winningham, who also shines vocally during the Bob Dylan musical numbers. Also delivering a powerful vocal performance is Jeanette Bayardelle as Mrs. Neilsen (check out our Girl from the North Country-themed edition of 5 Questions from Over the Pond featuring Ms. Bayardelle here). Hamilton alum Austin Scott delivers a knock-out performance as boxer Joe Scott and Kimber Elayne Sprawl offers perhaps the most nuanced performance as the vulnerable yet assertive Marianne. But despite these standouts, Girl from the North Country is truly an ensemble piece that relies on the emotional and spiritual connection of its cast members, who are completed by Todd Almond, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Tony Award nominee Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Matt McGrath, Tom Nelis, Colton Ryan, and Jay O. Sanders as Nick Laine.
What’s special about this production?
Kudos to writer and director Conor McPherson for the innovation at the heart of this production’s creation. Unlike some of the jukebox musicals of the modern era that lyrically shoehorn well-established songs into an original narrative (sometimes dubiously), McPherson uses Bob Dylan’s songs primarily to enhance the atmosphere on stage or as musical interludes. There is no desperate necessity to force songs in as a device to somehow vaguely further the narrative. He also uses the periodically clunky theatrical device of a narrator to great effect by using a supporting character (Dr. Walker) to break the fourth wall and guide us through the plethora of personalities onstage, lest we become lost in the web of story arcs.
The wealth of actor-musicians on stage is astounding, all playing typical instruments from the 1930s and organically coming together in seemingly spontaneous jam sessions that make you believe all of Dylan’s hits were written during that period. And speaking of the hits, be prepared for around twenty renditions of Dylan classics from “Slow Train” to “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Hurricane” to “Idiot Wind” and from the titular song to “Forever Young.”
McPherson’s Depression-era story has just enough glimmers of hope within it to ensure the piece isn’t too… well, depressing. The emotionally impactful moments of the ‘musical’ are heightened by Simon Hale’s poignant orchestrations and arrangements and it’s these moments that provide perhaps the main takeaways of Girl from the North Country.
Who would we recommend it to?
Bob Dylan fans that have yet to experience these beautiful new takes on their idol’s greatest hits will surely not be disappointed. But for theatregoers who are unfamiliar with the icon’s back catalogue, we’d recommend Girl from the North Country to anyone who has enjoyed Broadway classics the likes of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, or A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, and is open to some soul-stirring musical enhancement.
Girl from the North Country Tickets are available now.
(Photos by Matthew Murphy)