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Review: Conor McPherson's Somber And Touching Bob Dylan Tapestry GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Moves Uptown

Even the best written of Broadway's jukebox musicals tend to sacrifice dramatic content in order to showcase the beloved hit songs that fans came to hear. But it would be misleading to label playwright/director Conor McPherson's lovely, introspective drama Girl from the North Country, which incorporates twenty selections from the extraordinary songbook of American folk legend Bob Dylan, a jukebox musical.

Girl from the North Country
Mare Winningham and Jay O. Sanders
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Don't expect a rousing "Rainy Day Woman"/"Blowin' In The Wind"/"Mr. Tambourine Man" dance mega-mix finale climaxing this somber, touching production that originated at London's Old Vic before crossing over to The Public in October of 2018. And unless you're a Dylan aficionado, don't even expect to be very familiar with most of the words and melodies you'll hear performed quite beautifully by the wondrous ensemble of actor/singers, most of whom are now repeating their Off-Broadway performances at the Belasco.

Do expect to be fully engaged in what is truly a thoughtful and compelling collaboration between two master storytellers.

It was Dylan's management team that approached the celebrated Irish playwright, whose works like THE WEIR and SHINING CITY are filled with characters who captivate with their storytelling skills, to invent a stage vehicle for the work of the iconic figure who emerged with wisdom and commentary that spoke out to young minds during the blaze of the 1960s.

The piece he devised is set in Depression-era Duluth, the Minnesota city that served as Dylan's birthplace in 1941. Costume/scenic designer Rae Smith places us in the parlor of a worn-down guesthouse, but the design simultaneous serves as radio broadcast studio, with a drum set stationed stage right, members of music director Marco Paguia's band sometimes in full view, and actors singing into period microphones set on stands.

The storyteller in this instance is the folksy - and addicted - philosopher, Dr. Walker Robert Joy).

"I healed some bodies in pain," he explains. "But as we know pain comes in all kinds. Physical, spiritual. Indescribable."

He introduces us to the inn's proprietor, Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders, new to the cast, providing a strong, if weary anchor), who inherited the home from his grandfather, but never had a sense for business and is desperate not to lose everything. His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham, her captivating Off-Broadway performance even more effective) suffers from early stages of dementia, a condition that developed shortly after she told Nick she no longer loved him.

Respecting the responsibilities of marriage, Nick takes care of Elizabeth while running the business on his own, but the recently widowed Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), is expecting a substantial inheritance and has her heart set on building a future with the hard-working innkeeper.

Girl from the North Country
Austin Scott (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Nick and Elizabeth's son Gene (Colton Ryan) is a writer of unsold short stories who prefers to find inspiration drinking at a bar instead of working in his "stultifying" room. Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), the black daughter the white couple adopted when her biological parents abandoned her in their rented room, is pregnant and the father quickly skipped town. Tom Nelis plays the elderly shoe mender who offers to marry the nineteen-year-old, assuring her that won't be alive much longer and will leave her financially stable.

On a rainy night in November an unlikely pair arrive seeking rooms, both played by newcomers to the piece. Matt McGrath is the slick-talking Bible salesman Reverend Marlowe. His companion, Joe Scott (sensitive work by Austin Scott), is a boxer whose career was interrupted when he was unjustifiably jailed. (Those in the know won't be surprised at the inclusion of Dylan's "Hurricane," written to raise awareness of the wrongful imprisonment of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.)

Also staying is the formerly affluent businessman Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), desperately looking for a new venture. His wife (Luba Mason, who tears it up playing drums) tries keeping up a glamorous Hollywood appearance and their adult son, Elias (Todd Almond) is described by the playwright as having the mental age of a four-year-old child.

With so many characters and so many musical moments not scripted specifically for them, McPherson doesn't present a plot as much as a collage of encounters reflecting the kind of working class struggles Dylan wrote about. The songs don't come out of the dialogue but play more like unspoken spiritual cries, usually directed right to the audience.

So it's quite stunning when Winningham, who is outstanding throughout playing a character who appears lost in her own mind, sizes up the situations surrounding her and lets loose a forceful rendering of "Like a Rolling Stone." Equally jarring is a moment when Almond's Elias appears relieved of his affliction and exuberantly wails a snazzy "Duquesne Whistle."

And just try holding back your tears after a scene where Gene's girlfriend (Caitlin Houlahan) breaks off their relationship for someone more stable and the two of them separately reveal their unspoken emotions with an achingly quiet and simple "I Want You."

Simon Hale's rich and textured orchestrations and vocal arrangements rely heavily on gospel and rural 1930s folk music, creating a unified score out songs that were written throughout a span over fifty years. The choice to not include applause breaks fits the mood of the piece very well.

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