by Meredith Ganzman
Girl From The North Country has traveled a long way from the West End to off-Broadway and now Broadway’s Belasco Theater – and thankfully so. The new musical, written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, is perhaps not the show you set out looking for, but you will definitely be glad to have found it.
Set in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 we meet Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), his wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) and their two children, Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl) and Gene (Colton Ryan). Nick runs a guesthouse, whose inhabitants have all come to different turning points in their lives. Deep into The Great Depression, Nick doesn’t know how much longer he can keep the guesthouse running. Marianne, who is black and was adopted as a baby, is about to be a single mother. And Elizabeth has a severe, but unnamed, mental illness and appears to be living very much in her own world. Another family residing in the guest house, the Burkes, also have an adult mentally ill son.
This is not Bob Dylan’s first foray onto the Broadway stage. 2006 saw his music in the short-lived musical The Times They Are A-Changin, directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Girl From The North Country may not be much more successful than its predecessor. The icon’s songs mostly don’t fit and do little to move the story forward. “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young” are the exceptions. “Like a Rolling Stone ” gives the audience unique access into Elizabeth’s mind and to briefly see the world through her eyes. In fact, the new musical could just as easily been a play with a handful of songs. That’s not to say I minded hearing the stellar cast gloriously give a fresh and sensational take to Dylan’s classics.
The incredible Emmy-winning actress Mare Winningham, appearing now in HBO’s The Outsider, leads this uber talented group. Her heartbreaking Elizabeth (who may just be the title character, though it is never specified) still manages to fill us with hope as she never loses her tenacity, despite living in the grips of poverty and with a difficult mental health condition. Usually seen in straight plays and on screen, Winningham’s powerhouse voice may come as a surprise. But she’s relaxed and in her element in the musical. Other standouts include Jay O. Sanders’s strong but beaten down Nick. Kimber Elayne Sprawl’s effortless and beautiful voice lifts the show from some of its darkest moments.
A particularly poignant moment comes toward the end of the show at the conclusion of “Forever Young.” The Laine family is portrayed in their own, albeit leaner, version of Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting. The four have so little, but seem to realize having each other gives them so much more and indeed keeps them forever moving and growing and therefore “forever young.”
Girl From The North Country is playing now at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, run time 2 hrs. 30 min (one intermission) www.northcountryonbroadway.com