Girl from the North Country makes strikingly moving theatre out of Bob Dylan songs
October 7 2019
By Karen Fricker, Theatre Critic
(out of 4)
Something dark and monumental is happening on the stage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is, and trying to do so feels like betraying its lateral, elemental power. Basically stated, it’s a staging of 21 Bob Dylan songs, around which Irish playwright Conor McPherson has woven a story of some down-and-out folks living in a Minnesota rooming house during the Great Depression.
What’s new about it, and makes it so hard to describe, is how McPherson and his collaborators have made the music the show’s defining element. There is plot and there are characters, but what will sweep you away, if you’re willing to go on the ride, is the deeply melancholy mood that develops as first-rate performers belt out one great Dylan song after another. As such, McPherson has more than stepped up to the challenge put to him by Dylan’s record company to find a theatrical framework for the singer-songwriter’s Nobel-Prize-winning catalogue.
McPherson was not an obvious choice: this is his first stage work set in the U.S. and he has never written a musical before. But it turns out he was an inspired one. He channels his characteristic focus on sad, dislocated people and his fascination with something unknowable and bigger than us (call it the supernatural, call it a higher power) into a genuine innovation in theatrical form. In McPherson’s production (he directs as well as writes) the music is that powerful force: The songs well up out of situations in the story but do not comment directly on them, and it’s as if all of the performers and the stage space itself are somehow in their thrall.
There is a theatrical conceit to all this (which I’ll admit that I didn’t fully perceive until I read the program): the performers are broadcasting the story, which explains the presence of a narrator (Ferdy Roberts) and the convention that most of the musical numbers are performed in front of old-fashioned stand microphones, with the performers singing out to the audience. This decoupling of song from situation and character worked well for me, but it may be disconcerting to those who get caught up in the stories and are trying to make sense of who’s singing to whom.
Another innovation, clearly intended to add to the constant slow build of tension and mood, is the disruption of the convention that the audience is expected to applaud after musical numbers: songs don’t end with flourishes but rather overlap with dialogue or action (the same technique is used in a musical with a significantly different tone and affect, “Come from Away”).
Katie Brayben and Shaq Taylor in GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Toronto/London Company. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, 2019.
As much as there is a story, it has to do with the owner of the boarding house, Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay), whose life is slowly unravelling: his wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben) has early dementia, his son Gene (Colin Bates) is jobless and alcohol-dependent, his adopted Black daughter Marianne (Gloria Obianyo) is pregnant and unmarried, he’s having an affair with one of his tenants (Rachel John), and he can’t keep up with his mortgage payments. Other tenants include the Burke family: the domineering father (David Ganly), desperate-to-please wife (Anna-Jane Casey) and developmentally disabled young adult son Elias (Steffan Harri). On a rainy night, two other lost souls blow in: a Black boxer (Shaq Taylor) and hucksterish Bible salesman (Finbar Lynch).
The advancement of these plotlines feels something like overlapping short stories, none of which are fully fleshed out but which are rendered deeply affecting by the songs that erupt out of them, as when Gene sings “I Want You” after being rejected by a former sweetheart named Kate (Gemma Sutton) who only appears in that scene. The songs are drawn from across Dylan’s five-decade career and include some of his better-known works and less famous titles (orchestrations, arrangements, and musical supervision are by Simon Hale). Particularly in the second act, there are some beautifully staged big numbers choreographed by Lucy Hind, which combine social dancing with simple yet effective group movement.
Brayben’s scorching rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” is among the production’s most galvanizing moments, in which Elizabeth reveals that she is more aware of what’s happening around her than she has let on. Many of the lead actors have extensive credits in the non-musical as well as musical theatre and their capacity to anchor their performances in emotional conviction is key to the production’s success.
Rae Smith’s scenic design is essentially wide open, with cast members bringing on furniture pieces as needed, and huge images of cityscapes and the Minnesota countryside dropping in at various points. Smith’s costumes are period-appropriate and frequently very pretty — perhaps too much so for characters who we are supposed to understand are very hard up. This adds to the impression, for me, that the production’s social themes (race relations, poverty, class struggle) are less of a priority than the evocation of melancholy.
But oh, how beautifully this show evokes those deep and dark feelings! As a theatrical frame for Dylan’s artistry, it’s something genuinely stirring.