Review of Girl from the North Country on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    March 5, 2020
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    So moody and moving it can hurt, Girl from the North Country is the thinking theatergoer’s jukebox musical. Its bright stars are more than 20 songs by Bob Dylan threading throughout the Depression-era story that’s now on stage at the Belasco Theatre.

    Following earlier runs at the Old Vic in London and Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, the show arrives on Broadway four years after Dylan, a singer-songwriter in a league of his own, won a Nobel Prize for literature and 14 years after his hits were woven into the short-lived The Times They Are A-Changin'.

    Written and directed by Conor McPherson, the Dublin-born author of The Weir and The Seafarer who knows his way around haunted characters, Girl from the North Country is in his wheelhouse. The setting is a guesthouse in Duluth, Minn., where lost souls collide and, to varying degrees, connect in 1934. Everyone is plagued by the past, the present, and the specter of an uncertain future.

    Among them are Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), who runs the property, his dementia-addled wife Elizabeth (a reliably wonderful Mare Winningham), their booze-happy aspiring writer son Gene (Colton Ryan) and adopted black daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl, excellent), an unwed mom-to-be. Widowed Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle, the vocals MVP) is a resident whose relationship with Nick is an open secret. Joe (a knockout Austin Scott, who recently starred in Hamilton) is a boxer packing a mean hook and a troubled history. Elias Burke (Todd Almond), is the childlike adult son of the Burkes (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason), whose business ventures are on the skids. Dire times, desperate lives.

    What makes the show click, start to finish, is that Dylan’s songs haven’t been shoehorned in to stir the plot in convenient or contrived fashion -- an all too common jukebox trick. Songs have been carefully curated and, in some cases, streamlined, and included to create an overall atmosphere. They’re beautifully orchestrated and arranged by Simon Hale.

    Sandwiched between “Sign on the Window” and “Forever Young,” which start and end the show, are the title tune, “Idiot Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Slow Train,” “License to Kill” and “Duquesne Whistle” are three songs that make indelible -- if not reach-for-the-Kleenex -- impressions.

    McPherson’s story, on the other hand, isn’t as strong, starting with the nagging device of a narrator (Robert Joy, as Dr. Walker) who spoon-feeds exposition and a tidy epilogue. Some characters are threadbare sketches. And at various moments, the plot summons memories of Of Mice and MenThe Iceman Cometh and, weirdly, when it comes to a pregnancy, Agnes of God. McPherson’s thoughtful staging and uniformly ultra-fine cast help make up for narrative knots. The same holds for strong design work by Rae Smith (set and costumes) and Mark Henderson (lighting).

    Minutes into this melancholy musical slice of life, a character observes that “pain comes in all kinds. Physical. Spiritual. Indescribable.” It’s clear that Girl just doesn’t wanna have fun. It digs deeper and gets darker and is very affecting. By the conclusion, thanks to the story of one young couple, there’s just enough light for a glimmer of hope. The end is a beginning.

    (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

    "A nation is broken. Life savings have vanished overnight. Home as a place you thought you would live forever no longer exists. People don’t so much connect as collide, even members of the same family. And it seems like winter is never going to end. That’s the view from Duluth, Minn., 1934, as conjured in the profoundly beautiful Girl from the North Country, a work by the Irish dramatist Conor McPherson built around vintage songs by Bob Dylan."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "McPherson uses Dylan’s songs as atmosphere in the broadest sense: They are the air the characters breathe. And when the musical’s cool gains force, it acquires a piercing chill."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "A series of unfortunate events has come to Broadway. No, not the Lemony Snicket novels, but Girl from the North Country, a mashup of Bob Dylan songs and abject misery. The show, which opened Thursday night, is little more than a stack of vaguely depressed persons who take breaks from sad scenes to sing anguished and questionably relevant songs."
    Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

    "No disrespect to Bob Dylan, one of the greatest songwriters in modern American music, but hearing his tunes sung by the melodious voices in Girl from the North Country is a revelation — the second time even more than the first. Moving to Broadway after a hit 2018 run at the Public Theater, this brilliantly conceived project from Irish writer-director Conor McPherson could be called the anti-jukebox musical. Rather than being forcibly wedged into the narrative, the songs are used with imagination and a sweeping amplitude of feeling to deepen the mood, enrich the characters and liberate their inner voices. The result is a rapturous act of theatrical storytelling."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "Some people think Bob Dylan’s music is depressing — and in Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson makes the case by setting more than twenty of Dylan’s songs into a surprisingly sturdy narrative about the residents of a seedy boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, at the height of the Depression in 1934. Although individual tunes like “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle” feel as if they were written in direct response to the Great Depression, other songs don’t always suit the specific dramatic situations in which they’re set. But overall, the morose music captures the bleakness of the period and the down-and-out hopelessness of those Americans who barely lived through it."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety