"May His Songs Always Be Sung"
There’s so much vigorous handshaking, hugging, kissing, and other forms of human contact in Girl from the North Country, the often thrilling Bob Dylan-scored musical now at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, one can only imagine a backstage area filled with hand sanitizers, soap and water, disinfectants, and other forms of antiviral precautionary items. Sorrowfully, despite the multiple raves the show has garnered—give or take a few nitpicks, like my own, below—it seemed last night that the current health crisis is having an impact. Near me, at the rear of the orchestra, were a number of notably empty seats.
|Caitlin Houlahan, Colton Ryan. All photos: Matt Murphy.|
If, however, you intend to keep going to the theatre but want to be especially selective, you won’t go wrong by choosing Girl from the North Country. I reviewed it here in October 2018, when it played at the Public, and have adapted that review below to reflect cast changes, alter a sentence here and there, and add a comment or two to what I previously wrote.
The many fans of the wonderful Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Night Alive) will no doubt be excited to see a new play by him but music lovers will be even more excited at its incorporation of many classic songs by Minnesota troubadour Bob Dylan. I wish I could say both of these brilliant talents come off equally as well.
What makes Girl from the North Country—now at the Belasco, following its Off-Broadway stay at the Public, itself coming after a hit premiere at London’s Old Vic and a West End transfer—so special, however, is the showcase it provides for one magnificent cover after another of Dylan’s oeuvre. This is thanks largely to the extraordinary orchestrations and arrangements of Simon Hale (with contributions from McPherson himself) and the singing of an exceptional cast.
Even if, like me, you find McPherson’s play—set during the Depression in a boarding house in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, in November and December 1934—less than stellar, you’ll probably agree that it serves aptly as a dramatic context into which Dylan’s songs fit beautifully. And that’s regardless of the fact that he was born seven years after the fictional events depicted. Girl from the North Country, named, of course, after a Dylan classic, is so musically agreeable that I’m forced to put my caveats about its dramaturgy aside and recommend it with a five-star rating, whether you’re a Dylan fan or not.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of the troubadour’s best-known songs, is not among the 20 sung or played during the show, but “Idiot Wind” is, and the dialogue makes frequent references to the metaphor of the wind’s blowing during the hardscrabble days faced by all the troubled characters. Everything transpires in the confines of Nick (the outstanding Jay O. Sanders, replacing Stephen Bogardus) and Elizabeth Laine’s (Mare Winningham, better than ever) “guesthouse,” most of it taking place around preparations for and consumption of Thanksgiving dinner.
Nick is deeply in debt and Elizabeth has early onset dementia, which doesn’t stop the otherwise decent Nick from carrying on with Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle, in great voice), a widow waiting for the money her railroad employee husband left her to clear probate. The Laines’ 20-year-old son, Gene (Colton Ryan, superior), is a jobless, alcoholic, would-be writer.
In one of the plot elements most difficult to swallow, the Laines’ 19-year-old daughter, Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl, wonderful), is black, abandoned by her parents as an infant and raised by the bighearted Laines. Marianne’s problem is she’s five months pregnant by a Lake Superior boatman who’s sailed off into the Minnesota sunset.
Guests at the house are, in addition to Mrs. Neilsen, the down-and-out Mr. and Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason, each terrific), and their tall, mentally challenged, 30-year-old son, Elias (Todd Almond, excellent). The Burkes are later joined in the middle of the night by a good-looking, black boxer, Joe Scott (Austin Scott, replacing Sydney James Harcourt, very good but looking more like a dancer than a pugilist), and a nasty bible salesman called Reverend Marlowe (Matt McGrath, perfectly seedy in the role earlier played by David Pittu). Each trails unpleasant secrets.
Filling out the cast of principals are three more characters. One is Dr. Walker (Robert Joy, living up to his name), the substance-abusing local doctor, who also occasionally serves as the Our Town-like narrator, speaking into a standing mic to provide expository background and, at the end, a (posthumous) summary of what happened to the people we’ve met. Then there’s the thickly bearded Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis, spot on), an elderly “shoe mender,” who offers money to make the reluctant Marianne his live-in companion (marriage to her being illegal). Finally, we have Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan, sweetly satisfying), the pretty girl who leaves Gene to marry someone more stable.
This assemblage is further amplified by a gifted four-member, racially mixed, backup-singing and dancing ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, and Chelsea Lee Williams) who represent friends and neighbors. The show’s fluid conventions allow moments when the ensemble members get brief solos, just as the principals often drop their characters to become part of the ensemble’s choral numbers. They may even play musical instruments, as when both Kudisch and Mason demonstrate their drumming skills.
McPherson’s multiple plot strands follow each character, introducing elements of financial loss, substance abuse, abandonment, loneliness, marital stress, sexual longing, adultery, romantic heartbreak, fisticuffs, blackmail, gunfire, and death. McPherson’s skill at creating
colorful characters with tangy dialogue keeps us engaged, even when the situations border on melodramatic contrivance. And some things simply don’t ring true, like having all these 1930s Midwesterners drop so many f-bombs, or an intrusive moment of magic realism when Marianne describes the encounter that led to her pregnancy.
Then there’s the racial issue. Given the play’s own emphasis on race-based biases in 1920s and 1930s Duluth (Dr. Walker cites a notorious 1920 lynching), the idea of a black child being raised by white parents while barely raising local eyebrows seems a stretch. Even the entry of the black Joe Scott into the household, and his casual reaction to Marianne’s presence, doesn’t feel right. This air of unreality is further underlined by casting a black actress as Mrs. Nielsen, Nick’s lover, without a single comment about their miscegenation within an otherwise racially charged script.
Elizabeth is as likely to be not only lucid and articulate in one moment as she is in the next to be mentally distracted. Despite Winningham's winning performance, this often makes it confusing as to just how bad her condition is. It’s also a bit much to see Nick, inches from his wife, not only speaking candidly about her to Mrs. Nielsen but openly discussing their affair as if Elizabeth weren’t there. These are just a few of the problems that make McPherson’s script less than it might be.
The playwright’s staging, aided significantly by Lucy Hind’s movement direction, mingles heightened theatricality with Depression-era realism. Sometimes it evokes the feeling of painters like Thomas Hart Benton. However, because of the show’s position between a straight play and a musical, not everyone can avoid overacting to achieve it.
Rae Smith’s open scene design—movable walls, background vistas, and furniture—allows for the omnipresent company to move things about in the semidarkness. Smith’s period costumes are especially on the mark, and little could be done to improve the deftly imaginative lighting of Mark Henderson. Simon Baker’s sound design makes everything easy to listen to.
Some have questioned whether Girl from the North Country is or isn’t a jukebox musical. Of course, it is, given that the script is designed to allow the insertion of multiple, preexisting, songs. There are many kinds of jukebox musicals. This one is the type that fits the songs of a particular performer or writer into a new story, such as Broadway’s Head over Heels, with its Go-Gos’ score used for a plot set in the Middle Ages.
One of the things that makes Girl from the North Country different is that Dylan’s lyrics often have little to do with the moments they illustrate, or do so only tangentially. Even the title song has nothing to do with the play, at least not directly. When a song is to be sung, the characters don’t do so within a particular dramatic context but, instead, step up to a mic and sing it for the audience. More significant than the songs’ meaning-based specificity is their emotional value, which comes across in the impact made by both their words and music, especially as performed here, where every number sounds freshly minted.
A CD is available of the London production but I’m looking forward to the Broadway recording, so I can again listen to Jeannette Bayerdelle sing “Went to See the Gypsy,” Kimber Elayne Sprawl perform “Tight Connection to My Heart,” Todd Almond warble “Duquesne Whistle,” and, among so many other gems, Mare Winningham (known mainly as a dramatic actress) do wonders for “Like a Rolling Stone” and, with the company, set your heart racing with “Forever Young.”
To paraphrase a lyric in that last one, may Bob Dylan's songs always be sung.
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