Review Roundup: Critics Weigh-In On GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at the Public Theater

By: Oct. 01, 2018

Review Roundup: Critics Weigh-In On GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at the Public Theater

The Public Theater presents the North American premiere of Girl from the North Country. Written and directed by Olivier Award winner and Tony Award nominee Conor McPherson with music and lyrics by music icon Bob Dylan, Girl from the North Country weaves the music of our greatest poet-singer-songwriter into a piercing drama about home, heart, and the searching determination of the American soul. This new musical has been extended three times and will now run through Sunday, December 23.

The complete American cast features Todd Almond (Elias Burke), Jeannette Bayardelle(Mrs. Neilson), Stephen Bogardus (Nick Laine), Sydney James Harcourt (Joe Scott), Matthew Frederick Harris (Ensemble), Caitlin Houlahan (Kate Draper), Robert Joy (Dr. Walker), Marc Kudisch (Mr. Burke), Luba Mason (Mrs. Burke), Tom Nelis (Mr. Perry), David Pittu (Reverend Marlowe), Colton Ryan (Gene Laine), John Schiappa (Ensemble), Kimber Sprawl(Marianne Lane), Rachel Stern (Ensemble), Chelsea Lee Williams (Ensemble), and Mare Winningham (Elizabeth Laine).

Following a sold-out run at London's Old Vic and a West End transfer, this astonishing new show from Olivier Award winner and Tony Award nominee Conor McPherson and music icon Bob Dylan makes its North American premiere at The Public with an American cast this fall. Dylan's inimitable songbook is authentically transformed by McPherson into an achingly beautiful story of a down-on-its-luck community on the brink of change in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934.

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY features scenic and costume design by Rae Smith; lighting design by Mark Henderson; sound design by Simon Baker; orchestrations, arrangements, and musical supervision by Simon Hale; additional arrangements by Simon Hale and Conor McPherson, movement direction by Lucy Hind; and fight direction by UnkleDave's Fight-House.

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: Brightness flickers fitfully in the bleak, beautiful landscape of "Girl From the North Country," a rich and strange marriage of the talents of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson and the American songwriter Bob Dylan. The setting for this haunting musical melodrama of unmoored lives is, after all, a premature winter. In Minnesota. During the Great Depression. So when something like joy or hope or love promises to light up the night in this ravishing production, which opened on Monday night at The Public Theater, it doesn't stand much chance against the prevailing darkness. This is a story of an age of privation and separation, in which homes are lost and families riven.

Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: 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.

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 effective is a moment when Almond's Elias appears relieved of his affliction and exuberantly wails a snazzy "Duquesne Whistle."

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: Conor McPherson does something unique and acutely affecting in Girl From the North Country, drawing a mythical line that connects the haunted souls of the Irish playwright's own work with the lost lovers and dreamers of Bob Dylan's songs and the Dust Bowl folk balladry of Dylan's idol, Woody Guthrie. Forget every knee-jerk resistance you've ever felt toward the idea of a jukebox musical, this is a completely different animal. Rather than artificially shoehorning songs into a purpose-built narrative, McPherson artfully builds a novelistic tapestry of archetypal figures, the poor and disenfranchised of an America suspended in time, using Dylan's pungently expressive lyrics and roots melodies to echo and amplify its themes of melancholy, yearning, hope and despair.

Roma Torre, NY1: Theatre's got a brand new bag: It's a crop of songs by none other than Bob Dylan. The Nobel Prize Winner's songbook is beautifully integrated in playwright Conor McPherson's musical drama, "Girl From The North Country." It's an unusual work in a stirring production that's bound to get under your skin.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: The wind is everywhere in Conor McPherson's Girl from the North Country. You can't see it, but you can hear it, insistently, in the lyrics of the 20 songs by Bob Dylan that McPherson has woven into his adumbral evocation of America in the Great Depression. It's the heavy wind of the title song, the howling wind of "Hurricane," the wicked wind of "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)," the wind of change in "Make You Feel My Love," the idiot wind in "Idiot Wind." What the show doesn't give us is "Blowin' in the Wind," and the omission seems deliberate. McPherson gracefully avoids the trap of a greatest-hits survey; only three songs in score are from Dylan's cultural heyday in the 1960s, and even the most famous ones have been rearranged, truncated, combined into medleys. The show makes Dylan's songs as unfamiliar as it can; it freezes them in timelessness.

Allison Adato, Entertainment Weekly: His original script for Girl From the North Country, which McPherson also directs, is the Dubliner's first set in America, in this case Depression-era Duluth, Minnesota. (Later Dylan's birthplace.) Yet despite a sold-out run in London, the show currently at New York's Public Theater feels like a misstep. The challenge of collaborating with this monumental body of work trips up the much-acclaimed McPherson. His words - blustery, profane, biting - never find a way to mesh with the evocative, easy poetry of the troubadour himself.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: In the end, it's too joyless an intellectual exercise to sit in the theater trying to match song lyrics to specific emotional moments on stage. Better to sit back and just enjoy the music - and credit McPherson with giving each song the gift of clarity. If not always apropos to their dramatic moments, the lyrics are clearly intelligible. And truth be told, Winningham's thoughtful delivery of both "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Forever Young" is a revelation - a revelation of the poems Dylan meant them to be.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: Some of the songs seemed to be selected with the scantest connection to the story. They were just inserted, and when they popped up at a moment of high tragedy or high drama, it seemed opportunistic or just bizarre. The songs didn't add anything to the story, they weren't originally written with such a moment or emotion in mind.

Greg Evans, Deadline: Mining Bob Dylan's unrivaled songbook - even if he'd never written a tune beyond the 20 or so included in Off Broadway's Girl From The North Country, his contribution to popular music would be assured - and wandering his spiritual map of a mythic Americana that conforms to no historical boundaries but feels undeniably true to the bone, Conor McPherson's radiant musical is as eccentric and unclassifiable as any fellow traveler of Dylan should be.

David Cote, Observer: It hurts me little to conclude that Girl from the North Country, an attempt to twine Dylan's five-decade catalogue through a theatrical trellis, doesn't work. For me, the heartbreak is that Conor McPherson, an artist dear to my heart, has written and staged such a disappointing play.

Matt Windman, amNY: Technically speaking, "Girl from the North Country," written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson and built around Bob Dylan songs, is a jukebox musical. That being said, this bleak, enigmatic and haunting piece (which is receiving its U.S. premiere at the Public Theater following a hit London run) really deserves the nebulous descriptor of "play with songs," rather than "musical."

Elysa Gardner, New York Stage Review: If McPherson's characters shall not be released from their suffering, the playwright allows them, and us, deliverance through Dylan's music-gloriously arranged by Simon Hale, whose orchestrations embrace Dylan's folk and blues roots while providing soulful showcases for singers of, frankly, much greater prowess. Cast members join the musicians on stage, shaking tambourines and other percussion instruments (a few have turns at the drum set) during production numbers that can blossom from drunken gatherings or just spring up, with shattering grace, at the most harrowing and even tragic moments.

Michael Sommers, New York Stage Review: Powerful, ever-poetic Dylan songs such as "Forever Young" and "Like a Rolling Stone" have been exquisitely arranged as various solo, ensemble, and choral numbers by Simon Hale, the production's music supervisor, and they are beautifully performed by a company of top-flight artists. The show promises to yield a remarkable original cast recording.

Sara Holdren, Vulture: ...the tone is overwhelmingly static and morose. Hale has cranked down the tempos and added choruses of keening harmonies, and McPherson has instructed his actors to play everything straight, sad, and soaring. They all make brave attempts to gaze into the middle distance and sing down the hurt, and they're all superb vocalists (assisted by the lovely work of sound designer Simon Baker, who gives their voices a haunting edge of reverb) - but after four or five songs have rolled by, you'd think all that Bob Dylan ever wrote were laments.

Peter Marks, The Washington Post: McPherson, the Irish author of such plays with supernatural undercoatings as "Shining City," "The Seafarer" and "The Weir," builds a set of intermingled, character-rich stories around Dylan's songs from 1963 (the title song) to 1985 ("Tight Connection to My Heart"). The voices of the playwright and songwriter coalesce harmoniously; they seem to be in conversation with each other, rather than having tried to force preexisting music to propel a newly made narrative. And still, you never feel an artificial moment in "Girl From the North Country." These characters from the '30s - black and white, sincere or shady, stuck in their Iron Range tracks or escaping from someplace or hoping to make it to another - sing in the Duluth-born Dylan's key so naturally you'd think they'd all whispered directly into his ear.

Jonathan Mandell, DC Theatre Scene: McPherson gives all of these characters an arc; a few, we learn, are not as they initially appear, others live to see their dreams curdle. But the playwright, who also directed "Girl From the North Country, seems more interested in presenting a community than in focusing on individual characters. This is most evident, and problematic, in his staging. The are a few lovely if brief choreographed moments, but they mostly serve to highlight how frequently the entire cast seems to be milling about aimlessly on stage, as if at a party.

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