At a time when musical theater remains dominated by shows based on existing material, any musical based on the songs of a popular artist unavoidably invites cynicism. Girl from the North Country, however, resists categorization as a “jukebox musical”. Though it uses more than 20 songs by Bob Dylan as its foundation, the production, currently playing at the Belasco Theatre in New York, is anything but an exercise in nostalgia. Not only does the song selection emphasize some of Dylan’s less famous works, but when the show uses one of the songwriter’s more legendary works, such as “Like A Rolling Stone,” the arrangements tend to be radically different.
Credit here goes to Conor McPherson, the Irish playwright who wrote Girl from the North Country’s book – set in a rundown boarding house during the Great Depression – and also directed the production. While some previous attempts to use Dylan’s music in dramatic contexts have ended in frustration for those involved, in this instance the singer gave McPherson access to his whole body of work, an opportunity he made the most of. Focusing on the lesser-known work didn’t just enable him to sidestep preconceptions, it also offered an artistic spark. In the liner notes for the Broadway cast recording, McPherson acknowledged the mixed reputation of Dylan’s 1980s work and the controversy the “born again” period sparked while conveying how compelling he found those recordings personally.
“Listening to these 40 albums, I found myself pulled into this area of his music again and again; albums like Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Infidels, struck by the passion and intensity of his writing at this time. Whatever this search was, wherever it had been leading him, it had certainly yielded artistic treasure.”
McPherson’s excavation of that treasure evolved along with the show itself, with the lineup of songs shifting in the course of its different incarnations. Following its debut at London’s Old Vic theatre, Girl from the North Country soon transferred to the West End and made its American debut at New York’s famed Public Theater in late-2018. The Broadway production, featuring much of the same cast as the Public Theater’s, initially opened in March of 2020, just a week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theaters in New York.
Among those who found the show compelling was Bob Dylan himself. “The play had me crying at the end,” Dylan told Douglas Brinkley in a 2020 interview for The New York Times. “When the curtain came down, I was stunned. I really was. Too bad Broadway shut down because I wanted to see it again.”
The show reopened in October of 2021, taking a brief hiatus in January before resuming shows in April and receiving seven Tony Award nominations in May. Along with the overall nomination for Best Musical and those for Conor McPherson as writer and director, those include acting nominations for lead actress for Mare Winningham (a potential Emmy nominee for the series Dopesick) and featured actress Jeanette Bayardelle. While the individual recognition for their performances is well deserved, it also highlights how unfortunate it is that the Tony Awards don’t have a category for ensembles, because the cast is filled with standouts, many of whom also played the roles in the Public Theater production.
In addition to Winningham as the mentally disturbed boarding house owner Elizabeth Laine and Bayardelle as widowed resident Mrs. Neilsen, this includes Kimber Sprawl, Luba Mason, and Robert Joy, whose character Doctor Walker serves as a narrator of sorts. Playing Elizabeth’s adoptive, African-American daughter Marianne, Sprawl turns Dylan’s 1985 synthesizer-infused song “Tight Connection to My Heart” into a torch song. With her character being an unwed expectant mother, facing the prospect of an arranged marriage, her delivery of the lyric “I’ll go along with the charade until I can think my way out” is especially striking.
As Mrs. Burke, Mason has the look of a femme fatale and an amazing voice. Her performance of “Sweetheart Like You,” which is intercut with Bayardelle singing the tender ballad “True Love Tends To Forget,” eclipses the rendition Chrissie Hynde released on her 2021 collection of Bob Dylan songs and perhaps even Dylan’s original from Infidels. Mason also acquits herself well as the drummer on this and several songs throughout the show.
Among the other performances that are close in tone and style to Dylan’s recorded versions is “Hurricane.” Sung by Austin Scott as the wrongfully convicted boxer Joe Scott, a character whose backstory has deliberate echoes of the song’s real-life subject, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. That’s a small artistic detail but one that speaks to the show’s overall approach. Period setting notwithstanding, Girl From the North Country is a thoroughly contemporary show, one that uses all the brilliant artifice of theater to convey genuine feeling. Though the show’s run is scheduled to end shortly after this month’s Tony Awards are presented, the production has been recorded for eventual release, ensuring audiences (including Dylan himself) will get an opportunity to enjoy it for years to come.
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