“Girl from the North Country” is largely the same slow, sad, elliptical and occasionally exquisite theater piece I saw Off-Broadway. But my reaction to it has changed, for better and for worse. There are still a good number of tuneful melodies sung gloriously by an exceptional 17-member cast accompanied by fiddle and piano, and I appreciated new aspects of the show. But 150 minutes of dreary lives didn’t wear as well this time around.
McPherson’s play is not about Bob Dylan, although it takes place in Dylan’s hometown, Duluth, Minnesota. It is set in a run-down boarding house in 1934, seven years before Dylan was born, and tells a mosaic of stories of the many people who live in the boarding house, or are passing through it.
If the cast is mostly intact, there are a few changes. Most notably, Jay O. Sanders now portrays Nick Laine, the debt-ridden, desperate and casually adulterous proprietor of the failing boarding house. Although this is Sanders’ first Broadway role in a dozen years, he has been an anchoring figure in play after play Off-Broadway, most notably in the past decade in Richard Nelson’s ambitious multi-part family dramas (the Apple Family, The Gabriels, The Michaels). Sanders makes his character Nick Laine a center of gravity in Girl from the North Country that almost makes up for what otherwise often feels like brief random episodes in unrelated lives.
The staging by McPherson (who also directed the show) still too often feels like a series of unfocused crowd scenes. But I’ve come to feel that the near-anonymity and atomization of the characters may be the point. Even Nick’s immediate family — portrayed by the same first-rate actors as Off Broadway – are outside both his embrace and his control. Nick’s estranged wife Elizabeth (the superb Mare Winningham), floats in and out of dementia and into clear-eyed truth telling; Nick’s son Gene (Colton Ryan) struggles to be a writer but is more accurately described as an unemployed drunk; Nick’s adopted black daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl) is pregnant, but won’t say who the father is.
The boarders and visitors include a shady Bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (now portrayed by Matt McGrath), a failed businessman Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), his bitter wife (Luba Mason), and his grown son Elias with the mind of a child (Todd Almond, shades of “Of Mice and Men”)
Mrs. Nielsen (Jeannette Bayardell) is having an extramarital affair with Nick. Neither are satisfied, with each other, or with their lives.
Nick: What the hell are you doing wasting your life in here?
Mrs. Neilsen: I gotta waste it somewhere.
Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), an old shoe mender with a questionable history with young girls, has his eye on Marianne.
Austin Scott, who was the most recent Hamilton on Broadway, is the new Joe Scott, a temporary boarder, who also has his eye on Marianne but is rebuffed by her. Gene for some reason goads Joe into a fight. Joe easily floors Gene because, as it turns out, he is a professional boxer – who had been incarcerated unjustly for three years, only recently released and intent on making a comeback. Cue his singing of “Hurricane,” which – for Dylan newcomers – is about the imprisonment of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
This is one of the few times that there is a direct connection between a scene and a song. Even the few that exist are often not how they may seem on the surface.
Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) has just rejected Gene (Colton Ryan) when they sing “I Want You,” So it represents their (or at least his) unexpressed longing rather than their actual communication. The song takes on a tone of remorse rather than the original, well, lust.
Girl from the North Country, in other words, cannot be confused with a conventional jukebox musical; the lyrics are not made to be literal extensions of the dialogue.
Its avoidance of the hoary/cheesy conventions of jukebox musicals is arguably part of the appeal of this show. But it was also confusing the first time around. Then I paid more attention to the way the play is framed.
Near the beginning, Dr. Walker (Robert Joy) steps to an old-fashioned microphone at the lip of the stage and begins to narrate — “Good Evening. Tonight’s story begins and ends at a guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota, in November 1934”—as if Garrison Keillor in an episode of A Prairie Home Companion. And, perhaps indeed, this is meant to be taken as a radio play. There is only a hint of this – no cleverly made sound effects, etc. – but Dr. Walker does offer a running (if only occasional) narration in front of that old-fashioned microphone. It occurred to me that the songs the cast sings could therefore be thought of as the kinds of songs the characters would be listening to over the radio. It’s the radio score of their lives.
(It seems useful to quote from Dylan’s banquet speech upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: “When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far….If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind..”)
Whether or not McPherson intends the audience to treat the songs as if they’re playing on the radio, my viewing them that way helped me feel more as if I was watching an integrated show, rather than an oddly bifurcated theater piece.
In any case, despite the glorious singing, Girl from the North Country could not be mistaken strictly for a Dylan concert. For one thing, only a handful of his hits are included among the more than two dozen in the show, and many are used as underscores or part of medleys. And then, Simon Hale’s arrangements reflect the unrelentingly bleak worldview of McPherson’s script much more than they do Dylan’s complex, contradictory sensibility, which is also electrifying , irreverent, clever and cheeky. It’s surely no coincidence that there is a Gospel and blues tint to many of the songs in Girl from The North Country, as if we’re at a church service, or a funeral
Girl from the North Country is on stage at the Belasco Theater (111 W. 44th St., between 6th and 7th Avenues, New York, NY 10036)
Girl from the North Country. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.Scenic & Costume Design by Rae Smith. Lighting Design by Mark Henderson. Sound Design by Simon Baker, Orchestrator, Arranger & Music Supervisor Simon Hale, movement direction by Lucy Hinds. Featuring Todd Almond as Elias Burke, Jeannette Bayardelle as Mrs. Neilsen, Caitlin Houlahan as Kate Draper, Robert Joy as Dr. Walker, Marc Kudisch as Mr. Burke, Matt McGrath as Reverend Marlowe, Luba Mason as Mrs. Burke, Tom Nelis as Mr. Perry, Colton Ryan as Gene Laine, Jay. O. Sanders as Nick Laine, Austin Scott as Joe Scott,Kimber Elayne Sprawl as Marianne Laine, and Mare Winningham as Elizabeth Laine, Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell