Spend enough time listening to Bob Dylan and you’ll hear plenty of stories of drifters and grifters, lost souls and hopeless lovers. Immerse yourself in his extensive catalog long enough and some strands of narrative might start to emerge, none of them particularly linear or complete, but suggestive of some foggy world of dogged struggle interrupted by scant moments of joy.
This is the world constructed in and around Dylan’s music by Conor McPherson, a great Irish playwright with an impeccable ear for longing. From his early monologue plays through The Weir and beyond, McPherson has turned again and again to the vehicle of long scenes of storytelling where speakers reveal much about themselves in their tales. In some ways, McPherson and Dylan are a natural pairing, a union that gives unique life to Girl from the North Country. In part a jukebox musical and in part a journey through the collective id of Dylan’s work, the show hums with the frustrated energy of its characters in ways that at all times recall the yearning at the heart of Dylan’s work.
At the center of his narrative, McPherson offers a boarding house that anchors a community in 1934 Duluth, Minnesota. Nick (Jay O. Sanders) runs the joint, which he inherited from his grandfather after fleeing some childhood trauma in his hometown. His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) is mentally unwell; his children (Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Colton Ryan) struggle to find their way as they reach adulthood; members of the community and unknown travelers pass through the boarding house on a regular basis, each with unique struggles on their plates. The story of Nick’s family may be the play’s organizing center, but there is not much here that could be called a primary plot line. Instead, stories swirl loosely in an around each other. Some reach a conclusion while others drift away unresolved. The experience is at once ethereal and very human.
Dylan’s music enters the proceedings regularly and fairly abruptly. Rather than the story leading smoothly into a song, as we might expect from most musicals, narrative portions of the show come episodically, then stop to allow for a song in dialogue with the story. All of the songs are Dylan’s, but few sound like his version.
Orchestrator and arranger, Simon Hale, has developed a soundscape with a palate of early American folk music infused with artful harmonies and arrangements: think early Dylan folk, but more lushly and dynamically produced (the one song that sounds most like Dylan’s recording is “The Hurricane,” the style of which is a helpful touchstone for the rest of the show’s score).
The song list is short on hits and long on deep cuts: many will recognize “Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Hurricane,” and maybe “I Want You,” the only song from 1966’s landmark Blonde on Blonde album, but many of the songs will be familiar only to the biggest aficionados. Style and song selection are, in fact, welcome choices for a show of this style: rather than being a vehicle for fan favorites by trotting out the hits just as they have always sounded on the radio, Girl from the North Country seems more coherent and unified in an of itself.
Vocal performances are perhaps a bit uneven, but much of the principle cast gets solo opportunities, offering a variety that keeps the show fresh and occasionally surprising as it moves through its two and a half hours. Austin Scott’s lead vocals on “The Hurricane” are a particular standout, and the production around “Duquesne Whistle” (a contemporary gem off 2012’s Tempest) featuring Todd Almond in the lead is surprising fun.
But as Almond sings as Elias, Marc Kudisch as Elias’s pained, haunted father, Mr. Burke, plays drums for the song, and shows by doing so the union of psychological struggle and painful determination that drives the character. This intersection is the engine of Girl from the North Country, which McPherson also directs, guiding his cast through the murky terrain of desire saturated in uncertainty.
Robert Joy’s character, Dr. Walker, who doubles as the show’s frank, sometimes lyrical, and somber narrator captures the essence of this show most clearly. He is driven by the need to tell this sad story, convinced that there is some value in dwelling with its rundown characters, but he is unwilling to mitigate any of the sadness that emerges in their lives.
As McPherson recognizes, Dylan has been a bard of folks like these for decades. Girl from the North Country may not so frequently sound like Dylan’s music, but it carries on his interests in the yearningly downtrodden with great faith and insight.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak and the shutdown of Broadway, this production has unfortunately suspended its performances at the time of publication.