Theater review: ‘Girl from the North Country’ makes Dylan music shine
"Girl from the North Country" uses desperate characters and their dire circumstances in Depression-era Duluth to launch a collection of wonderfully simple, gospel-tinged Bob Dylan songs.
NEW YORK — Ore boats bring a desperate family heartache and scandal; the grand Spalding Hotel refuses two drifters a room; and a ruined father finds his only son drowned on the cold Lake Superior shoreline.
It’s hard times in Depression-era Duluth, but the work of a revolutionary musician, born in the same place nearly a decade later, soars above it all as these lost souls battle demons and dysfunction searching for a better life.
“Girl from the North Country,” a play featuring the music of Duluth-born, Hibbing-raised singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, opened at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in New York on Thursday. The emotional and powerful musical drama — performed by a gifted and multi-talented cast — provides still another example of the timeless beauty, honest insight and endless inspiration found in the Dylan catalog.
Written and directed by award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson, “Girl from the North Country” is set in a dim, dusty tenement house equipped with an upright piano, kick-drum and big, boxy silver microphone. No-nonsense Nick Laine, played by Jay O. Sanders, operates the place and watches over his wife, Elizabeth, played by Mare Winningham, as she flops in and out of dementia.
Indeed, Laine’s life is plagued with problems: His son is an alcoholic writer who can’t hold a job. His adopted daughter was left pregnant by a long-gone sailor. A beautiful border tempts his desire, foreclosure is imminent, and townsfolk provide little help.
Renters bring more uncertainty and despair. A failed businessman, his wife and invalid adult son have a disastrous stay, and two mysterious drifters — a white preacher and a black boxer — appear late in the night.
“I don’t preach the word; I sell it,” says the Rev. Marlowe, as he takes a bedroom and lets his companion sleep on the floor.
The only relief this hardscrabble bunch finds is in the music.
The play uses these desperate characters and their dire circumstances to launch a collection of wonderfully simple, gospel-tinged Dylan songs arranged by McPherson and Simon Hale. Backed by an onstage string band, songs take on alternative meanings, gather momentum and discover new depth. “Went to See the Gypsy,” sung in ensemble, speaks to the loneliness and isolation found in a “little Minnesota town.” Austin Scott, who plays a boxer on the run from the law, sings “Slow Train” in his socks. The song hits like a roundhouse right to the jaw.
As Laine family life spins out of control, it’s the sickly Elizabeth who takes over the stage. The role is broad and colorful, and Winningham captures it with wordless neck twists, chair turns and stage dashes. When she does speak, her words are weapons —dropping f-bombs and remembering the dark past. Winningham, an Emmy-award winning actress, has a strong voice, too. She performs Dylan’s 1965 pop hit “Like A Rolling Stone” brilliantly, opening the epic song not facing the audience, and ending it with a hat-throwing, call-and-response mash-up into the 1960s classic “I Want You.”
Like Dylan songs, McPherson inserts social issues into the play. The script addressed the tragic 1920 Duluth lynchings, labor and business unrest, alcoholism and the plight of women in the early 20th century. These issues are all tied together in a devastating Thanksgiving dinner scene soberly soundtracked by “Idiot Wind,” from Dylan’s 1975 “Blood on the Tracks” album.
It was refreshing to hear many lesser-known Dylan songs recreated for the production. For example, “Duquesne Whistle,” a song recorded in 2012, received the biggest staging of the night. Todd Almond, as the speechless, invalid son returning from the dead, sings: “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing, blowing like it’s gon’ kill me dead.” His white suit shined like a ghost as the full cast danced in front of a backdrop featuring the rolling Duluth hills.
While each musical piece was impeccably staged, little room was left for audience response. Several song productions cried out for big applause, but scene timing would not allow it. Perhaps this is the difference between musical theater and — as McPherson calls it — a play with music.
The closing song did not have this problem.
Jeannette Bayardelle, playing a boarder who loses her heart to Nick Laine and her money to a corrupt attorney, performed another Dylan obscurity, “Pressing On,” as a stunning gospel coda. Bayardelle gave the song a powerful reading, leaving the audience hopeful that the dire circumstances found in the city “with winters seven months long” will eventually lead to new life in the spring.
If you go
What: "Girl from the North Country"
Where: Belasco Theatre in New York
Online: Tickets for upcoming months can be purchased at belascotheatre.tickets. Prices range from $49-$179.
Mark Nicklawske reviews music and theater for the News Tribune.