Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY National Tour Presented by Broadway In Chicago

The first national tour of the Bob Dylan jukebox musical runs through February 25, 2025

By: Feb. 15, 2024
Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY National Tour Presented by Broadway In Chicago
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“Like a Rolling Stone,” the Bob Dylan jukebox musical GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY rolls along at an erratic pace with haphazard direction. Book writer and director Conor McPherson’s musical loosely wrapped around many of Dylan’s classic songs concerns a cast of characters at a guesthouse in 1934 Duluth, Minnesota. The musical introduces the owner of the guesthouse Nick Laine (John Schiappa, convincingly both weary and scrappy) and his troubled family: His wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood, convincingly losing her rational mind) seems to suffer from dementia, his son Gene (Ben Biggers) is an aspiring writer and alcoholic, and his adopted 19-year-old Black daughter Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie) is pregnant...and the would-be father is nowhere to be found. McPherson brings in a number of other residents at the Laine guesthouse, who flit in and out of the property. Some of them, like the newly released and wrongfully imprisoned Joe Scott (Matt Manuel), have good intentions; others, like the slimy Bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb, and, not, shockingly, an actual reverend) do not. The town’s Dr. Walker narrates the proceedings; he bookends the musical’s beginning and end with expositional monologues about this motley crew. 

While admittedly I’ve never been attached to Bob Dylan’s music, I was curious how the songs of a musician with such particular sounds and stylings (and decidedly far from traditional Broadway ones) would tie into a musical. Alas, GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY lacks connective tissue between book scenes and Dylan’s songs. Instead of letting Dylan’s songs flow from the emotional states and motivations from the characters, other members of the ensemble often perform songs about other characters. This kind of Brechtian staging doesn’t necessarily fit stylistically with the musical’s otherwise straightforward (if haphazard) presentation styling. And while I find it interesting that the leads alternate between their roles and becoming ensemble members and back-up vocalists, the transitions are clunky. 

Dramaturgically, GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY didn’t find its footing. The musical has a sleepy first act, and then starts tossing out plot points about characters right and left in the second. The characters themselves remain broad archetypes, so it becomes difficult to invest in their increasingly sad storylines. While Bob Dylan’s songs don’t point in the direction of a “happy-go-lucky” story, I think GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY leaned too far into its varied, tragic character arcs — without providing fully fleshed out detail on any one of them. 

If there’s a good reason to see GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, it’s for the vocals. The ensemble members are experts at harmonizing, filling the CIBC Theatre with lush vocals. The bluegrass influences in Dylan’s music are particularly clear in some rousing and lively group numbers. This cast is full of consistently phenomenal singers. Stand-out vocalists include Jill Van Velzer as guesthouse client Mrs. Burke and Carla Woods as Mrs. Nielsen, Nick’s lover. Aidan Wharton sings beautifully on  “Duquesne Whistle;” when tragedy befalls Mr. Burke (David Benoit), Mrs. Burke, and their son Elias (also played by Wharton), who’s intellectually disabled, he takes up the song as a mournful cry. Though again the framework for the song is jarring: Wharton is singing about his character, but as if he’s serving as an external witness to his own experience. I was also impressed by Chiara Trentalange’s following solo number “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).” Trentalange has a warm, mellow tone that’s a spectacular fit for Dylan’s music. And when the ensemble comes together to sing in harmony, it’s truly beautiful. 

Times are hard at the Duluth, Minnesota guesthouse in GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, and the musical’s narrative threads and lack of strong connection between scenes and songs mirror the varied and erratic behaviors of the guests coming and going from the property. If you’re a fan of Bob Dylan’s songs, you’ll enjoy hearing them expertly sung, but McPherson’s story doesn’t connect them together in a cohesive narrative. 

The Broadway In Chicago engagement of GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY runs through February 25 at the CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe Street. Tickets are $35-$129, with premium tickets available ($161.50). 

Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman