Broadway Review: Bob Dylan Musical ‘Girl From The North Country’ Reimagines Those Genius Back Pages

In case you hadn’t noticed over the last five or six decades, Bob Dylan can’t be contained, not by any particular genre, persona, creed or even voice, and the same can mostly be said for Girl From The North Country, the musical, written and directed by Conor McPherson, that transports the hits and deep-cuts of a peerless songbook to a Depression-era, crossroads-of-humanity boarding house. Opening tonight in a Broadway production that both focuses and somewhat constricts the musical that seemed more physically expansive, more tonally dreamlike, in its 2018 Off Broadway incarnation, Girl From The North Country nonetheless remains a revelation in its uncanny interpretations of even the most familiar Dylan songs.

When Girl was staged at the Public Theater downtown, the production – same director, same creative team, mostly the same cast – was both mournful and celebratory at once, a downbeat tale of folks at their wits’ end but capable of moments of communal joy, holiday celebrations where the burdens of the everyday were at the very least shared, for a moment.

The particular venue at the Public where Girl was staged seems closer to in-the-round than proscenium, and the setting gave the musical a sort of open air feel more fully exploited that year by the barn-dance setting of Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! In Girl, the expanse suggested an old-timey radio program, an Opry-style gathering of performers waiting for their moment at the big-headed microphones.

McPherson makes some clever choices in adapting this musical to its new location. Townfolk and radio singers don’t gather themselves, in plain audience sight, from the periphery of the action; rather, they walk down the audience aisles, a route that lends the movement an entirely different feel, efficient if less organic.

Mostly what the re-staging does, though, is lessen the delicate impression that what we’re witnessing – the various relationships and secrets transpiring in that boarding house – takes place in a dreamy, collective memory. That wistful effect isn’t entirely missing in the current Broadway production, where the proscenium stage of the lovely Belasco Theatre can’t help but select, frame and firmly plant each scene, a sort of theatrical pan and scan.

Still, it would take more than a change in venue to do any lasting harm to this often ravishing musical. Rae Smith’s set is equal parts juke joint and boarding house, realism and fading recollection, while her appealing ’30s-style costumes suggest leftovers from better days. With Mark Henderson’s shadow lighting, the pleasing, overall effect is of rooting around in an old attic, the occasional video projections of the Minnesota landscape beckoning with fresh air.

Not that there’s anything stuffy about the performances (or Lucy Hind’s delightful, loose-limbed dance and movement design). In my review of the Off Broadway production, I wrote that the musical is at times “so lovely – as when a pair of young, broken-up lovers duet on a newly mournful version of the once sprightly I Want You – [that it] might have you wishing for some sort of theatrical replay mechanism.” Even on my second viewing I still wished for such a mechanism, and, yes, especially for the gorgeous I Want You duet, which should certainly raise the profiles of its young performers Colton Ryan and Caitlin Houlahan. 

This, too, holds up from my initial 2018 review (altered here only to update with the casting of Jay O. Sanders):

“Set in a Duluth boarding house around Thanksgiving 1934, as the Great Depression transforms the nation into a landscape of John Steinbeck graveyard ghosts, Girl funnels Dylan’s hardscrabble essence – one of his essences, anyway, the one that both mourns and glorifies what’s slipped away – into something fresh and vitalizing.

“Gathering at the boarding house are any number of lost souls, dead-enders and down-on-their-luck folks who’ve seen much better days. The house belongs to Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders) and his mentally deteriorating wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), or rather, it once belonged to them. The bank is about to foreclose, and the once happy homestead, where the Laines raised their now alcoholic son Gene (Colton Ryan) and informally adopted African American daughter, the maybe-pregnant Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), has been turned into a rooms-for-let place offering shelter to those drifting through Duluth and life.

They include: a widow whose affair with Nick seems a last chance at happiness for both; a failed businessman, his wife and their grown son who has the mind of a child; and, late to the collection, a scheming preacher and a one-time boxing champ.

Also in the mix: an elderly shoe salesman who has offered to marry the in-a-bind Marianne; Gene’s ex-girlfriend; and a kindly, morphine-addicted doctor who hands out the feel-good medicine much too freely when he’s not narrating directly to the audience, a la Our Town.

The excellent Broadway cast also includes Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, Austin Scott and Matt McGrath.

On seeing the musical again, the writerly homages to iconic bits of Americana – to Of Mice and Men, Our Town, The Glass Menagerie, Woody Guthrie and, of course, the great Dylan himself – seem perhaps a bit more obvious, but still evocative. Todd Almond’s Elias, a strong man with the mind of a toddler, is meant to remind of Steinbeck’s tragic Lennie Small, but McPherson – an Irish writer steeped in American folklore – knows where our minds are headed, and reroutes us at the last minute, to startling effect.

Also on second viewing, I was reminded of performances that might have gone overlooked – or at least unmentioned – the first time around, notably that of Luba Mason, who plays Elias’ mother Mrs. Burke, a woman who may once have been the life of any society party until the burden of protecting her damaged son from a dangerous world (and vice versa) has curdled her old social charms into pathetic displays of drunken promiscuity. When the smartly dressed character sits herself at the on-stage drum kit and starts beating the rhythm to a superb “Sweetheart Like You,” the image is at once amusing and poignant.

That particular song choice is typical of the show. “Sweetheart Like You,” from Dylan’s underrated 1983 album Infidels, wasn’t a hit and isn’t particularly well remembered, and the details of its lyrics don’t always track with the musical’s plot. No matter – a lyric like “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” suits the essence of Mrs. Burke to a T.

Ditching the gruesome jukebox musical convention of twisting a new musical’s book to old lyrics never meant for such gymnastics, Girl, like Ivo van Hove’s David Bowie musical Lazarus before it, aims more for spiritual connections than literal ones. So we have those two star-crossed lovers doing “I Want You” (“soooo bad,” they sing); and Winningham’s addled but truth-telling matriarch calling down the mighty “Like a Rolling Stone” as both warning and accusation; and the newly smitten ex-con (Austin Scott) and mysteriously pregnant Marianne (Sprawl), both carrying more experience than their years should hold, joining together for that most bitter of Dylan’s diatribes, “Idiot Wind.”

And in a second act song and dance showstopper, the pitiful man-child Elias, in angelic white, gets his spotlight, leading the ensemble in a revival-style rendition of Dylan’s 2012 ode to escape, “Duquesne Whistle.”

Despite an unnecessary punching up of some comic moments – Tom Nelis’ elderly courter of young Marianne seems more cartoonishly crotchety than I recall from before, and the excellent Winningham’s surprising memory about the old coot felt more punchline than exhumation at the reviewed performance – the Broadway staging of Girl From The North Country retains its wistful affection and respect for these Depression Era everypeople, these stand-ins for the countless unnamed or forgotten who suffered the breadlines and dust storms, died in later wars or alone in empty houses, and whose stories are eminently worthy of a genius’ attention.

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