Almond (center) and company Photo: Joan Marcus
By Fern Siegel
many, Bob Dylan is the poet laureate of American longing.
lyrical expressions of yearning, heartbreak and loss have been recast as a
moving new musical — Girl From The North Country — at The Public
in 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace, his cannon of hopeful, yet
pensive melodies fits seamlessly into the quasi-stoicism of Conor McPherson’s
touching script. Using Dylan’s oeuvre, he produces an elegiac show that
artfully captures the melancholy of Depression-era Midwesterners. It’s a
jukebox musical, but a thoughtful one.
in part, by Dr. Walker (Dr. Joy), the backdrop is a failing boarding house run
by a hapless Nick (Stephen Bogardus) and his wife Elizabeth, exhibiting early
signs of dementia (an amazing Mare Winningham). Their son Gene (Colton Ryan) is
consumed by alcohol and rage, while their adopted black daughter Marianne
(Kimber Sprawl) is 19, partner-less and pregnant. Nick, worried about her
future, tries to set her up with Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), an elderly man of
fact, all the boarders are broken or lost, a slice of America
battered by a failing economy, unrealized dreams and unexpected pitfalls. Their
ache for connection and meaning is palpable. In 1931, writer James Truslow
Adams defined the American Dream, as "life should be better and richer and
fuller for everyone … regardless of social class or birth.”
promise has eluded the denizens of Girl From The North Country.
are a mixed collection of souls resembling an Edward Hopper painting: lonely,
suffering and often displaced. Set designer Rae Smith makes the most of worn
furniture and photo backgrounds of the chilly, bleakly beautiful landscape.
Everyone has a story — and none is pretty.
Houlahan and Colton Ryan Photo: Joan Marcus
Nielsen (Jeannette Bayardelle) is waiting on money that like Godot, we suspect
will never appear. Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt) is a boxer with an angry
tale of injustice, while the Burkes, (Marc Kudisch) and (Luba Mason), nurse a
private tragedy, their son Elias (Todd Almond).
utilizes 20 Dylan songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Hurricane,” “I Want
You,” “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle,” that span almost 50 years. Nearly
everyone gets a solo, and the voices of Bayardelle, Harcourt, and Mason rock
the house. So does Winningham; her “Forever Young” is memorable.
impressive is hearing various vocal interpretations of Dylan’s music,
accompanied by a five-piece band (including Mason on drums) and period-style
orchestrations by Simon Hale that are spot-on. Indeed, McPherson (“The Weir,”)
“The Seafarer”) adopts a restrained dramatic style; he lets the music strike
the raw emotional chords that define mood and moment.
big issue is survival — be it with dignity, resignation or as a petty grifter.
Rarely is the life force a motivation; it’s either qualified hope for a better
tomorrow or the quiet understanding that we take what comes. Circumstance,
rather than choice, defines the journey of the dispossessed. Which makes this
period — the early 1930s — an ideal setting for Dylan’s music.
Winningham Photo: Joan Marcus
who smoothly directs, is especially good at staging musical numbers that
deliver a show-within-a-show performance. A Thirties-style microphone appears;
singing and dancing prove outlets for true expression in an otherwise stark
social landscape. Winningham’s fierceness and childlike dependence is deftly
rendered, so is Mason’s familial anguish. McPherson is blessed with a seasoned
ensemble, and in brushstrokes, they paint a portrait of an America
just steps away from implosion.
From The North Country, which began at the Old Vic Theatre in London before
transferring to the West End and now makes its American premiere. The show is a
tribute to the versatility of Dylan’s work and the power of endurance.
from The North Country. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan
time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
(Through December 23)