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Girl From The North Country

If you're trav'lin in the north country
Where the winds blow heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
lyric from "Girl From the North Country," the second song from the second Bob Dylan album from which the musical now at the Public Theater takes its title.
 Girl From The North Country
Mare Winningham and Stephen Bogardus (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Bob Dylan's more than half a century spanning career has won him a fistful of awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. His songs encompass just about every musical genre you can name, but all have one thing in common: emotion tugging soulful, story ,telling lyrics.

Yet no one has found the right way to create a musical about this iconic musician. A commission to write songs for a musical the poet Archibald MacLeish was writing (Scratch based on Stephen Vincent Benet short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster") came to naught, though the songs Dylan wrote for that commission did end a dry spell in his career. Twyla Tharp's 2006 The Times They Are A-Changin' was embarrassingly silly and unworthy of Dylan's songs and closed after 3 weeks.

Now comes Girl from the North Country, with a book by Conor McPherson, one of the contemporary theater's best story tellers tackling Dylan's story telling songbook. BINGO! This is the Dylan musical we've all been waiting for.

To start with, here's what Girl frm the North Country is not. It's not a juke box musical to showcase a famous individual or group's biggest hits. It's not a bio-musical, shades of Beautiful, the Carole King Musical. It's not a traditional book musical, with an also newly minted score.

While its twenty songs have had (and still have) a life of their own outside the theater, the story McPherson has created to capture the tone of Dylan's oeuvre needs those songs to hold up. But that doesn't mean this is a case of great songs, not so great book. Unlike his previous plays like Seafarer, The Weir and Shining City Girl from the North Country was not meant to be a stand-alone drama but intended to be a Bob Dylan show that would reflect and honor the mood and tone of his music — which is exactly McPherson's book has done. Thus what might without those songs make the characters come off as somewhat stereotypical and the story line too melodramatic and episodic, is a successful marriage of two story tellers who happen to share an affinity for soulful, lost characters.

What we do have is a completely fresh and different kind of musical, that despite the bleakness of its setting and plot will send the audience out of the theater exhilarated.

Since McPherson was actually commissioned by Dylan and his managers to come up with a script for a Dylan musical, once they okayed his concept they left how to stage it and what songs to use completely up to him. The scenario which inspired that trust sets the action in a shabby boarding house in Dylan's home town of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934 when the Great Depression spun so many American lives into Book of Job territory. We see this illlustrated by all the characters, from Nick, (Stephen Bogardus), the owner of that boarding house to the locals and guests who come and go there, seguing back and forth between spoken interaction and songs that serve as an emotional codas to their inner feelings.

There's no shortage of bad things happening to good people situations that Nick faces: financial ruin, caring for his wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), who has dementia. . . getting a job for his son Gene (Colton Ryan), neither of whose ambitions — to be a writer and hold onto his girl friend Kate (Caitlin Houlahan)— are going well . . . persuading his adopted daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl) to marry Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), a much older local man to save her from the fate unmarried pregnant women faced in that time— especially if they were black. Marc Kudisch’s

The boarding house guests include Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), a boxer trying to restart his life in Chicago after three years of being incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit. . .a man who calls himself Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu) but is really a bible salesman desperate enough to do a bit of blackmailing. . .Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), a fast-talking business man and his beautiful wife (Luba Mason), who besides being down on their luck financially have a grown son (Todd Almond) who has the mental capacity of a toddler.. . Mrs Neilson (Jeannette Bayardelle), a widow awaiting money due her has been at the boarding house long enough to develop a go-nowhere love affair with Nick.

The failure that overhangs everyone afflicts even Dr. Walker (Robert Joy), the story's equivalent of the stage manager-narrator of Our Town. But the upside of all this darkness is that The constant back and forth between drama and song make this show, the smart choice of diverse and beautiful songs make this a visually and aurally outstanding theatrical experience — especially since the actors, whether in key roles or ensemble players, are all superb.

While most of the cast has straight drama as well as musical theater credentials, some who are best known in one area surprise us with the rich way they handle the other. Musical theater veteran Stephen Bogardus doesn't sing but is terrific as the beleaguered boarding house keeper. And Mare Winningham is not only riveting as his dementia stricken wife, but turns out to be a gorgeous singer. Marc Kudisch, also best known for his powerful pipes gets just just one solo song, but his Mr. Burke's turn at one of the various other Iceman Cometh-esque loser monologues is a gut-wrencher.

One of the more unusual surprises comes from seeing Luba Mason as the pill-popping Mrs. Burke use her powerful vocals as well as drumming skills to unleash the bitterness caused by her economic and familial problems. And a potently uplifting one comes from seeing Todd Almond have his pitifully childlike Elias Burke morph into a charismatic singer, treating us to the show's most recent Dylan song, "Duquesne Whistle" from the 2012 album Tempest.

As director, Mr. McPherson has succeeded in creating a production that has Dylan's music beautifully and completely integrated into this portrait of of his home town during the Depression that ended by the time he was born. While most of the songs are presented as solos, they are enhanced with harmonies from backup groups that include cast members. Much credit for how well everything comes together is due to orchestrator-arranger-music supervisor Simon Hale, scenic and costume designer Rae Smith and lighting wizard Mark Henderson whose way with spotlighting the solo and singing groups while creating shadow play images for the upstage backup groups.

Dylan's songs don't lend themselves to the spectacular, athletic choreography. However, Movement Director Lucy Hind has managed to create some lively dance numbers.

If I were a betting person, it would not be too risky to conclude this review with a prediction that despite the downbeat story Girl from the North Country is more than likely going to move to Broadway. After all, it has already made the leap from London to our shores (review). While this may not become a juggernaut like Hamilton, which also began its New York Life at the Public's Newman Theater), it does have the Dylan songs and this stellar cast go give it the legs for another leap. But whether that happens or not, I'd advise you not to miss the chance to see it in this spacious yet still intimate downtown venue.

Musical Numbers

    In Order
  • Sign on the Window
  • Went to See the Gypsy
  • Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?)
  • Slow Train
  • License To Kill
  • I Want You
  • Like a Rolling Stone
  • Make You Feel My Love
  • You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
  • Jokerman
  • Sweetheart Like You
  • True Love Tends to Forget
  • Girl From the North Country
  • Hurricane
  • Idiot wind
  • Duquesne Whistle
  • Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)
  • Is Your Love in Vain?
  • Forever Young

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Girl From The North Country
Written and directed by Conor McPherson
Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan
Cast: Todd Almond (Elias Burke), Jeannette Bayardelle (Mrs. Neilson), Stephen Bogardus (Nick Laine), Sydney James Harcourt (Joe Scott), Matthew Frederick Harris (Ensemble), Caitlin Houlahan (Kate Draper), Robert Joy (Dr. Walker), Marc Kudisch (Mr. Burke), Luba Mason (Mrs. Burke), Tom Nelis (Mr. Perry), David Pittu (Reverend Marlowe), Colton Ryan (Gene Laine), John Schiappa (Ensemble),Kimber Sprawl (Marianne Laine), Rachel Stern (Ensemble), Chelsea Lee Williams (Ensemble),Mare Winningham (Elizabeth Laine).
Scenic and costume design: Rae Smith
Lighting design: Mark Henderson
Sound design: Simon Baker
Hair, wig, and makeup design:y Leah J. Loukas
Orchestrations, arrangements, and musical supervision: Simon Hale
Movement direction: Lucy Hind
Fight direction: UnkleDave's Fight-House
Stage Manager:
Run Time: 2 1/2 hours with 1 intermission
Public's Newman Theater 420 Lafayette Street
Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Added performance on September 17 at 7:30 p.m. and on November 21 at 1:30 p.m. Performances on September 20, September 27, and October 10 are at 8:00 p.m. and at 7:00 p.m. on October 17
From 9/11/18; opening 10/01/18; closing 11/04/18--extended before opening to 12/09/18 (regular prices for extended 3 weeks).
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/30/18 press preview

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