Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Well, thank the stars that he did: Girl from the North Country is a radiant, deeply moving musical unlike any other you are likely to see. After a successful premiere run in London, followed by Off-Broadway and Toronto stints, it opened to acclaim on Broadway in March 2020. A week later it was shut down, along with the rest of the theatre world, by the COVID pandemic. The show reopened in October 2021, but like most shows in those early days after the shutdown, it was slow to rebuild an audience and closed in June 2022, having been nominated for that year's Best Musical Tony Award.
Now, Minneapolis has the honor of hosting the first stop of the national tour. It is playing for just one week at the historic Orpheum Theatre, especially fitting because Bob Dylan (and his brother) owned the Orpheum for a period in the 1980s. Due to scheduling issues, and by agreement with the show's representatives, I saw a preview performance on October 8, prior to the October 10 press opening, but I did not note a single thing needing a bit of work before opening. The show was aglow with the beauty and heart of its music, its book, its design, and its performances.
Set in November 1934, with the Great Depression rampaging through America's psyche, the story has thirteen characters, all dealing with loss: past, present, or on the horizon. Their lives cross in a run-down boarding house, a sort of last-chance way station from which only a fortunate few rebound to better times. In both setting and tone, it reminds me of Lanford Wilson's wonderful (and far too neglected) play, The Hot l Baltimore.
McPherson placed his story in Duluth, Minnesota. This is where Bob Dylan was born (as Robert Zimmerman) in 1941, though he was raised through high school seventy-six miles away in Hibbing, nestled in the rugged Iron Range. The distance from his birthplace to his hometown is an apt metaphor for the distance between the birth of this project, at Dylan's own bidding, and his subsequent involvement, which was zero. The songs are an essential part of Girl from the North Country,, make no mistake, but Dylan wrote no new music for the show, did not work on musical arrangements, and basically just gave McPherson and the creative team his blessing to do their best by his music.
Twenty-two of Dylan's hundreds of songs are melded into the play. These are not "musical numbers" in the sense of typical musical theater but, rather, are sung in a presentational manner. Often, an actor begins a song standing before a microphone, sometimes joined by back-up singers arm-in-arm, giving the feeling of the song being heard by way of a radio broadcast, which would be the way most music was heard at that time and place. At other times characters sing their song rapt in their own thoughts and feelings, as if singing is a mechanism by which they search for what is actually going on in their hearts. Simon Hale did the orchestrations and arrangements and deserves tremendous credit for the score being both beautiful and in perfect tune with the story. No wonder his work was awarded with the 2022 Tony Award for Best Orchestrations.
For Dylan fans, many songs are familiar–though, a fair number are obscure, most likely known only to diehard fans–but even the best known of them, gems such as "Like a Rolling Stone," "I Want You," "Forever Young," and the title song, are transformed by vibrant, heart-wrenching singing by a cast of amazingly good actors and by the meaning attached to them through their place in the gripping narrative.
The boarding house is run by Nick (John Schiappa), though he is barely keeping it from the hands of creditors. Nick's wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood) has a form of dementia that sometimes puts her in a catatonic huddle, other times erases all inhibitions, making her both garishly inappropriate and the most reliably truthful of the lot. Their son Gene (Ben Biggers), in his early twenties, fancies himself a writer, but his most successful efforts are to empty bottles at the local tavern. Nick and Elizabeth's adopted daughter Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie), who was abandoned at the boarding house in a satchel as a baby, is Black and is pregnant.
A widow named Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods) has a relationship with Nick while awaiting probate on her late husband's legacy. Mr. Burke (David Benoit), Mrs. Burke (Jill Van Velzer), and their grown son Elias (Aidan Wharton) were well heeled before the stock market crash–it shows in their stylish attire–but have not coped well with their fall from grace. Into this mix one stormy night, arrive a bible salesman who calls himself Reverend Marlow (Jeremy Webb) and Joe Scott (Matt Manuel), a former boxer with a troubled past. Completing the roster are Mr. Perry (Jay Russel), an aged shoe-repairman with whom Nick has been working out a marriage of convenience to Marianne; Gene's girlfriend Kate (Chiara Trentalange); and Dr. Walker (Alan Ariano), who functions as a narrator, dispensing his affection for these broken people.
Every one of the performers is praiseworthy–the actors named above and the four who serve as song soloists and an ensemble. Woods conveys Mrs. Nielsen's stoic patience and has piercingly good moments delivering "Went to See the Gypsy," "True Love Tends to Forget," and "Pressing On," while Blood delivers Elizabeth's hazardous mood swings and sings achingly on "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Forever Young." Schiappa conveys the duality that eats away at Nick, his efforts to be a good man who will do whatever he can to help other, while fighting fears that he is in truth a bad man.
Moultrie is instantly lovable as Marianne, even as she withdraws into her vast secret. She beautifully sings "Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)," and, with full-voiced Matt Manuel, "Idiot Wind." Wharton has a startlingly powerful moment with "Duquesne Whistle," and Biggers as Gene and Trentalange as Kate give a poignant reading to "I Want You," singing not to each other, but to their heart-broken selves, giving an entirely new feel to this very familiar song.
McPherson directs his own play with a sure sense of the narrative momentum and the feeling he wants each scene to evince. The music never breaks out into a "number," as in conventional musical theatre, and never pauses long enough for audience applause after a song, as the next scene has seamlessly begun. McPherson creates stunning tableaus that add layers of feeling. Dancing stems from the lives of these people, such as carefree social dancing when the boarding house crowd lets loose the night before Thanksgiving, or simple sashaying by an ensemble singing back-up to one of the songs. Lucy Hind is credited as "movement director," and her work is sublime.
The entire show takes place in the boarding house, but the set continuously changes, with drop-down panels and projections, some showing the exterior siding, the big lake at the bottom of every hill in Duluth, or the sloping street of wood-framed houses. The shifting of these views is coordinated with changes in the story and its emotional tenor. Scenic designer Rae Smith makes the movement of scenic elements a palpable part of the show. Smith also designed the apt period costumes, and is credited in the Playbill near the bottom of the page, just ahead of director McPherson, a spot typically given to a musical's choreographer. Mark Henderson's lighting design creates wondrous images with shadows and silhouettes, while always attuned to the emotional tone of the moment. Simon Baker did the sound design, which is excellent, clearly audible in the vast Orpheum, which has not always been the case with touring productions.
Shortly after Girl from the North Country was shut down by COVID, historian Douglas Brinkley interviewed Dylan for the New York Times. Brinkley asked Dylan if he had seen the show, and Dylan's response was "Sure, I've seen it, and it affected me. I saw it as an anonymous spectator, not as someone who had anything to do with it. I just let it happen. The play had me crying at the end. I can't even say why. When the curtain came down, I was stunned. I really was."
Far be it from me to explain Bob Dylan's emotions, but I have no trouble understanding how Girl from the North Country could prompt one to tears: tears of sorrow for the hardship so many people faced then, and still face today, and tears of gratitude for a work of art so brilliantly conceived and beautifully presented. I, too, was stunned.
Girl from the North Country runs through October 14, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For information on the tour, visit northcountrytour.com.
Book and Director: Conor McPherson; Music and Lyrics: Bob Dylan; Movement Director: Lucy Hind; Scenic and Costume Design: Rae Smith; Lighting Design: Mark Henderson; Sound Design: Simon Baker; Hair and Wig and Design: Campbell Young Associates; Music Supervisor, Orchestrator and Arranger: Simon Hale; Additional Arrangements: Simon Hale and Conor McPherson; Music Director/Conductor: Wiley Deweese; Music Coordinator: Dean Sharenow; Casting: ABC; Production Supervisor: Jeff Brancato; Stage Manager: Ira Mont; Production Stage Manager: Justin Myhre; Associate Director: Barbara Rubin; Stage Manager: Rachel Heine; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Girardal.
Cast: Alan Ariano (Dr. Walker), David Benoit (Mr. Burke), Ben Biggers (Gene Laine), Jennifer Blood (Elizabeth Laine), Ashley D. Brooks (soloist/ensemble), Justin Michael Duval (soloist/ensemble), Matt Manuel (Joe Scott), Kelly McCormick (soloist/ensemble), Sharaé Moultrie (Marianne Laine), Hosea Mundi (soloist/ensemble), Jay Russel (Mr. Perry), John Schiappa (Nick Laine), Chiara Trentalange (Kate Draper), Jill Van Velzer (Mrs. Burke), Jeremy Webb (Reverend Marlowe), Aidan Wharton (Elias Burke), Carla Woods (Mrs. Neilsen).