Girl From the North Country
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The world is full of natural, if not altogether obvious, matches. (Think chocolate and peanut butter, perhaps.) Now, add to that list the great Irish playwright Conor McPherson and the singular American songwriter (and Nobel laureate) Bob Dylan. Their seemingly disparate sensibilities have come together to create one of the most haunting – and hauntingly beautiful -- musicals I’ve ever seen, “Girl from the North Country,” which has arrived at Broadway’s Belasco Theater after a multi-year journey from the UK and NYC’s Public Theater (where it earned the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical).
In no way a conventional “jukebox musical,” -- if you’re thinking you want to see “Moulin Rouge,” it’s alright, you can think twice – be aware that McPherson (who both created the piece and directed it) uses 20 of Dylan’s songs as stand-alone numbers that act alternately as commentary, inner monologue and mood enhancer to his rather simple tale. Moreover, unlike say “Mamma Mia!,” only a couple of the selections are even remotely obvious, and most of Dylan’s biggest hits never even appear in the show. (Even 1997’s “Make You Feel My Love,” is accorded only a single verse).
Long a purveyor of ghost stories, McPherson serves us another tale of the long-dead: the residents and frequent guests of a boardinghouse in 1934 Minnesota (the state of Dylan’s birth), each struggling to make it through one more day of living despite his or her financial woes and personal unhappiness. Admittedly, while most of the characters, ranging from the house’s frustrated owner Nick Laine (a superb Jay O. Sanders) to shady bible salesman James Marlowe (an amusing Matt MacGrath) are painted in two-dimensional strokes, they are all nonetheless recognizable, often pitiable figures. In addition, when placed together on this canvas, they paint a complete portrait of a community in trouble.
Nonetheless, every cast has a first among equals. Here, it is the extraordinary Mare Winningham as Nick’s mentally challenged wife Elizabeth. While her mind may not be all there, she is not so far gone that she is unaware of the unhappiness all around her. Yet Winningham is often very funny, bring a much-needed levity to the proceedings, and her renditions of two of Dylan’s best-known numbers, “Like a Rollling Stone” and “Forever Young,” sung in a strong pop-country voice, are simply indelible. It’s a performance worthy of the Tony Award.
Almost as outstanding are Broadway veterans Jeanette Bayardelle who gives a heartbreaking turn as the practical yet lovestruck Mrs. Nielsen, and whose soaring voice brings power and passion to “Went to See The Gypsy” and “True Love Tends to Forget”; while Marc Kudisch as the blustery, boorish Frank Burke and Luba Mason as his unhappy, drug-addicted wife can shake you to your soul. (Their duet on “Is Your Love in Vain” is just stunning, and Mason shines on “Sweetheart Like You.”)
Meanwhile, “Hamilton” star Austin Scott is mesmerizing as the polite prizefighter Joe Scott, lending his powerhouse voice to such numbers as “Slow Train Coming” and “Hurricane.” Kimber Elayne Sprawl is remarkably affecting as the Laine’s adoptive daughter, Marianne, well aware of what it’s like to be a black woman in an all-white society. The charismatic Colin Bates (as the Laines’ drunkard son Gene) and the lovely Caitlin Houlihan almost instantly bring you to tears on the aching “I Want You.” And Todd Almond, as the Burke’s presumably autistic grown son, Elias, offers up the show’s most exhilarating number, the little-known “Duquesne Whistle.”
Simon Hale’s arrangements, some starkly simple and others relying on intricate harmonies (especially helpful given the miniscule on-stage band) help bring all of the songs to vivid life, while Lucy Hind’s movements smartly accentuate some of the tunes, as do a handful of well-timed projections (presumably the work of set and costume designer Rae Smith).
There admittedly may be some audience members who won’t take to this unusual hybrid, but I suspect everyone will leave “Girl from the North Country” with a great appreciation – whether new or renewed – of the original “unwashed phenomenon,” a songwriter who has continued for over 50 years to punctuate the soundtrack of our lives.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Jennifer Blood, Law Terrell Dunford, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Ben Mayne, Matt McGrath, Tom Nelis, Colton Ryan, Jay O. Sanders, John Schiappa, Austin Scott, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chiara Trentalange, Bob Walton, Chelsea Lee Williams, and Mare Winningham
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