A talented cast offers superb singing and acting, and an iconic catalogue of sad songs, but the flawed production is like a Dylan concert that is interrupting a play.
David Mirvish/Girl from the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Sept. 28 to Nov. 24. Tickets available at mirvish.com.
Let’s get one thing straight right from the top. Mine is a minority opinion. The so-called Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country is coming to town on a wave of rapturous reviews from both the London and New York critics. Alas, the show and I did not connect, but I cannot deny its success.
Girl from the North Country opened at the Old Vic in 2017, then propelled by that triumph, transferred to London’s West End. In 2018, the show had a run at New York’s Public Theatre. This present Toronto production features a mostly British cast that is heading back to London for a remount. The Broadway production is scheduled for 2020, and I’m assuming that the reviews will be glorious once again.
The genesis of the show is interesting, Apparently, Dylan’s record company contacted Irish playwright Conor McPherson about creating a theatre piece using the songwriter’s music. Jukebox musicals, as these vehicles are known, can either be biographical, like Beautiful (Carole King), or fictional, like Mamma Mia (ABBA). The common thread is that the score consists of music by a popular songwriter/performer or pop group, and helps drive the story.
McPherson, however, was determined to avoid the jukebox syndrome. He sees Girl from the North Country as a play with music rather than a musical, where the score is, “a conversation between the songs and the story”. In fact, using old-fashioned microphones, the cast sings the songs to the audience, like a radio broadcast, rather than as the characters they portray. Often, the entire ensemble is involved in spectacular choral singing. In other words, the songs function as mood indicators, or inner feelings, or social commentary, or even political agitation. The twenty songs cover the entire range of the Dylan songbook, with the oldest being “Girl from the North Country” (1963) and the newest, “Duquesne Whistle” (2012).
The characters are a sad lot, if ever there was. The story is set in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. In a nod to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, Dr. Walker (Ferdy Roberts), acts as narrator, giving us insider information into McPherson’s characters. Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay) owns a failing boarding house that the bank is about to repossess. His wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben) suffers from dementia, which has given her a child’s forthright honesty and swear words galore. His wannabe writer son Gene (Colin Bates), in his early twenties, is an alcoholic and jobless, while his adopted Black daughter Marianne (Gloria Obianyo) is nineteen and pregnant.
Boarders include Mrs. Neilsen (Rachel John), Nick’s lover, who is waiting for an inheritance, and the Burke family who have fallen on hard times. Mr. Burke (David Ganly) lost his business, Mrs. Burke (Anna-Jane Casey) has questionable morals, while their adult son Elias (Steffan Harri) has the mind of a child. Then there is the shoemender Mr. Perry (Sidney Kean), the old man Nick is trying to marry Marianne to, and Katherine Draper (Gemma Sutton), Gene’s old girlfriend who is marrying someone else with better prospects. If this was not bleak enough, two strangers come a-calling — Joe Scott (Shaq Taylor), a has-been boxer just out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and the slimeball bible salesman, Reverend Marlowe (Finbar Lynch).
McPherson’s book is made up of short scenes, which are like snippets into their lives. The characters never grow or change. We are also fed a lot of contrary information. Is the father of Marianne’s baby a Great Lakes seaman? Did someone break into her room and rape her? Is she really pregnant? Characters also keep dropping hints about nefarious undertakings, like murder and prison escapes. The script is terse and economical, with the characters seemingly resigned to their ill-fated endings. No one is coming out of this story well. McPherson’s stage direction is also choppy, with characters leaving, then abruptly reappearing because they have to sing. With the ensemble being a background chorus on many of the songs, the cast is forever parading onto the stage in silhouette for their numbers. The stage picture lacks cohesiveness with these armies marching.
The London critics, in particular, talk about audience members crying at the end of Girl from the North Country, but I, who am usually the first to be consumed by sentiment, (I cried when the lepers got cured in Ben-Hur), shed nary a tear. In fact, I felt no connection at all. While I understand what McPherson was trying to do in separating Dylan’s mostly mournful songs from the direct story line, this disconnect rendered the show medium cool, for me, at least. Since the characters are not singing about themselves, the show is missing that emotional underpinning. Not helping matters is Rae Smith’s set that is gloomy and undistinguished, although her drab period costumes are spot on.
I can, however, get positive over the supremely talented cast who have impressive voices and great acting chops. Brayben as Elizabeth Laine is a particular standout. More to the point, Simon Hale, who is the show’s orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor, has done a superb job in giving each of Dylan’s songs its own unique showcase.
McPherson, in choosing the songs, insisted that only instruments that existed in the 1930s be used. Thus, there is only a small ensemble under musical director Ian Ross — piano/harmonium, violin/mandolin, various guitars and bass fiddle — but the accompaniment is heartfelt and all-embracing. The harmonies for the female ensemble, and the choral singing for the cast as a whole are brilliant. I noticed there was a lot of activity at the merchandise counter with people buying the original London cast album, and for good reason. Hale’s score elevates Dylan’s songs into glorious transcendence.
For me it comes down to this — Girl from the North Country is a Dylan concert that is interrupting a play.