By Ron Fassler . . .
It seems hard to believe that I first encountered Connor McPherson and Bob Dylan’s Girl from the North Country three years ago upon its American premiere downtown at the Public Theatre. It took over a year from then to line up all the elements that led to its opening uptown just prior to the pandemic closure. Now this unique musical has finally reopened on Broadway and that’s cause for rejoicing.
A well-established Irish playwright, McPherson’s work is highly regarded in the UK. He’s met with some success in transfers of his plays since the late 90s, but his is an acquired taste, not unlike his contemporary and fellow playwright of Irish extraction, Martin McDonagh. McPherson’s The Seafarer is a personal favorite, a prime example of his gift for storytelling. First developed at London’s Old Vic, what he’s conceived entirely from scratch for Girl from the North Country is a noble challenge. The songs he has gleaned from the prolific Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan highlight his free-flowing, poetic lyrics. And though dozens of shows use this conceit of pilfering an artists’ songbook like a grave robber, McPherson is far too adept a playwright to fall into such precarious territory. The choices have been made with the skill and precision of a surgeon.
A far more serious purpose of mind is on display here than something like Mamma Mia, even if that show proved wildly successful. You won’t get the easy laughs that met each successive song title in that musical with the audience self-congratulating itself over and over upon recognizing a song immediately from its vamp. Girl from the North Country is after far more, providing a stimulating and moving experience through each song. Make no mistake that this is a dark and dour tale. Yes, it’s a musical with great music that manages to find ways for dancing, but in truth, there isn’t much to dance about. But to sing about? Oh my, yes!
Setting the show in 1934 Duluth during the Great Depression makes dramatic sense. Dylan, a Minnesota native, was a small child at the outbreak of World War II, and certainly got a sense from his immigrant parents, Jews from Lithuania, what it was like to eke out a living at that time. McPherson sets the action in a boarding house, soon to be taken by the bank for non-payment from its owners Nick and Elizabeth Laine (Jay O. Sanders and Mare Winningham).Elizabeth is suffering from early signs of dementia and is, therefore, uncensored in her constant stream of observations, sprinkled with enough truth telling to assure her husband’s discomfort. They have a son (Colin Bates) who seems a bit of a lost soul and an adopted Black daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), who is vying for a place not only in her small community, but in the wider world at large. She takes up with Joe Scott, a visitor to the boarding house (played by understudy Matthew Frederick Harris at the performance I attended), not exactly the sort of man her adoptive parents feel secure about. Add to that an assortment of locals as well as tenants and the mix is one of intertwining storylines with enough juice to provide jolts of electricity when characters offer in song what the storytelling demands.
Those familiar with the Dylan catalogue will be surprised at how subtly the songs are so skillfully adapted. The small band is onstage throughout, and certain actors join in on the drums and harmonica and other instruments when necessary. Music Coordinator Dean Sharenow, Music Director Marco Paguia and Orchestrator and Musical Supervisor Simon Hale are the major heroes behind the exceptional music arrangements. Standing mics are utilized on occasion as if to suggest old time radio broadcasts, which gives the show a structure of something not dissimilar to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (Robert Joy as the local doctor provides the perfect twang in his voice, reminiscent of the New Hampshire dialect of the Stage Manager from that play). Among the other standouts in the fine cast are Todd Almond, Jeanette Bayardelle, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Matt McGrath and Tom Nelis.
McPherson also directs the play, and his staging is well-paced, giving the actors plenty of room to breathe. Particular mention should be made of Mare Winningham’s indelible characterization as Elizabeth. She will undoubtedly be remembered come Tony Awards time next Spring, as will most aspects of this bold musical, a welcome addition to what is turning out be an exciting new Broadway season.
Girl from the North Country is at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, NYC for an open-end engagement. https://northcountryonbroadway.com
Photos: Matthew Murphy