(l to r) Mare Winningham and Jay O. Sanders in ‘Girl From North Country.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
A Minnesota boarding house on the verge of economic collapse provides the moody backdrop for Bob Dylan’s songbook in Broadway’s latest attempt to artistically and commercially capitalize on music never intended for theatrical interpretation. Girl From North Country strikes plenty of familiar chords, but its Great Depression timestamp weighs heavy on the Grammy winner’s half-century body of work.
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, Girl From North Country’s central plot follows patriarch Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), his wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham, Casa Valentina), who has slowly unraveled into a fractured and foul-mouthed mental state, and their two adult children, the heavy-drinking Gene (Colton Ryan), and the adopted and pregnant-without-a-husband Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl (A Bronx Tale). There’s a lot to unpack in this house, and that’s before we meet Mr. and Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason), their mentally underdeveloped son, Elias (Todd Almond), and a few other boarders.
McPherson had free reign of Dylan’s 500-plus songs and settled on 23 of them to loosely weave the bleak misfortunes of those confronting (or avoiding) economic and emotional insecurity. But McPherson specifically avoids attempting to use the material to forward the action, unlike Jagged Little Pill, which springboards Alanis Morissette’s groundbreaking album into a packed plot that tackles everything from drug addiction and rape to race and sexual identification.
Instead, McPherson uses Dylan’s music and lyrics as emotional punctuation. “Nobody in the show is singing to anybody in the show. They’re singing and we’re catching them, sort of in a moment,” explained McPherson in an interview with American Theatre. “The actors say to me, ‘Where is my focus?’ Your focus is in the microphone. It’s not in the distance. It’s your own head. It’s allowing the audience to be taken into the character.”
McPherson’s unapologetic approach works… until it doesn’t. In the spirit of Once and John Doyle’s minimalist musical revivals (Sweeney Todd, Company), where the acting ensemble displays its musicianship, several actors take to the drums, others shake a tambourine or gather around a stand mic as if preparing for a segment on Lux Radio Theatre.
Regular theatergoers can experience a similar intersection of concert and narrative storytelling in The New Group’s Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (Duncan Sheik’s adaptation of Paul Mazursky’s 1969 film of the same name), while a few blocks away, fans still flock to Come From Away, which employs choreographer Kelly Devine’s ensemble-driven staging, which drifted across my mind as movement director Lucy Hind navigates Girl From North Country’s ensemble through heavily shadowed, pedestrian formations. While exceptionally executed, after a melancholy two-and-a-half hours, it all feels a bit familiar.
Bob Dylan fans will appreciate Simon Hale’s Americana arrangements, rich in harmonium, guitar and mandolin that reinforce McPherson’s 1934 timestamp and performed by a cast that mines the lyrics in the spirit of Minnesota’s long iron tradition. As the central figures of the Laine boarding house, Sanders and Winningham deliver a compelling portrait of a disintegrating marriage fueled by financial despair and mental illness. Winningham, known to movie buffs for her Brat Pack presence in St. Elmo’s Fire and a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Georgia, is captivating — both musically as well as her quirky embodiment of Elizabeth’s splintered mind.
Tragedy comes in many forms to those who reside or pass through the Laine’s boarding house: racism, depression (of both the personal and cultural variety), illness and death among them. In one of the show’s most thrilling moments, the mostly mute Elias emerges to sing “Duquense Whistle,” a song Dylan wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter for his 35th studio album, Tempest.
“Can you tell me where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon,” sings the electrifying Almond in a high-reaching key. “Seems like I been down this way before.” In some ways, it feels like a collective expulsion of the ill fates that one can’t escape from a life fully lived. Or maybe it’s meant to convey something entirely different. I’m not sure.
“Anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense,” said Dylan of the album originally intended as a collection of religious songs. If you’re a believer, Girl From North Country will resonate just as deep. If not, just shut your eyes and enjoy the music.
Girl From North Country
111 West 44th Street, NYC
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His arts writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.