Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas

The Bob Dylan Musical plays at Music Hall

By: Apr. 19, 2024
Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
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Would you rather see a good play poorly performed or good performers struggling with lousy material?  For me, the answer is easy: I’ll take the former every night of the week, hoping that the strength of the text will be noticeable despite the failings of the cast and direction.  After all, you can assemble to finest acting talents in the land, but if they’re just reciting text as thrilling as the phone book, there’s only so much they can do.  Sadly, with the national tour of Girl from the North Country, currently playing at Music Hall in Fair Park, Broadway Dallas has given us something resembling the latter.  The cast is strong – and while the story is better than the phone book, the play simply fails on too many levels.

The problems begin with the very concept of the production.  Jukebox musicals (that is, musicals using existing songs, rather than original material written to be part the story) usually work one of two ways: a biographical play, where the songs are woven into the character’s historical journey (Jersey Boys, Beautiful, Tina); or songs are shoehorned into a story where they hopefully make sense replacing dialogue, exposition, or activity (Mamma Mia, Bat Out of Hell, Jagged Little Pill).  In Girl from the North Country, playwright (and director) Conor McPherson eschews both methods, instead pulling songs out of Bob Dylan’s extensive catalogue that kind of, maybe, sort of reflect what the last scene was about.  That is, a dramatic scene will occur, then, for the most part, a character will sing a Dylan song that expresses a line or an emotion that applies to where the character is.  I’ll return to this subject in a moment.

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
The Laine family: Schiappa, Moutrie, Blood, and Biggers

The next problem is the mixture of the songs and the plot.  It’s almost as if McPherson wrote out this depressed story, realized it was too short (and dark) to be produced with a cast this large, so he added songs to pad the length.  The plot focuses around the Laine family's boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934.  Like everyone else at the time, the owner, Gene (Ben Biggers), is deeply in debt, struggling to stay open, and expecting foreclosure at any moment.  His wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood) is, mentally, not all there (once upon a time, she’d have been called crazy or touched); she might be schizophrenic, I don’t really know.  Some moments she’s lucid or perceptive, other she’s babbling nonsensically.  Their son Nick (John Schiappa) is a wannabe writer who has instead become a drunk, and they’ve been raising a black girl, Marianne (Sharae Moultrie), who had been left behind when her mother skipped town.  Oh, and she’s pregnant – and isn’t telling anyone who the father is. 

Then there are the boarders: Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods), a widow the owner is having an affair with; the Burkes, a failed businessman (David Benoit), his wife (Jill Van Velzer), and their fully grown son (Aidan Wharton), whose mind never made it past that of a seven-year-old or so.  They’re joined by two newcomers, a belligerent bible-selling pastor (Jeremy Webb) and a mysterious, but well-mannered black man (Matt Manuel) named Joe, who turns out to have been a boxer.  Coming in out of the boarding house are also the town doctor (Alan Ariano), often delivering dope, and the 70-year-old widower (Jay Russell), owner of a shoe store, who is courting the 17-year-old pregnant girl.  If this sounds thrilling, I haven’t done a good job explaining it.

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
           Wharton, Benoit, Blood, and Webb

Most everyone seems to be either one-dimensional or a stock character we’ve seen before.  It’s hard not to hear The Stage Manager from Our Town as the Doctor offers his narration.  The angst-ridden son who wants to be a writer but spends his time drinking himself into oblivion; the exonerated ex-con with the heart of gold; the crazy woman who sees what others can’t – none of these people appear the slightest bit real.

And then there’s the mysterious pregnancy subplot.  Who is the father?  Was she raped?  Is it a mystical pregnancy, perhaps even immaculate?  Or is it a hysterical pregnancy?  All of these questions are raised at one point or another, never to be answered.

But I could have gotten past all of that, as well as the unremittingly dark subject matter of the play, mostly on the strength of the performers, had it not been for the misuse of the music.  As I said, with a very few exceptions, the songs had nothing to do with the story.  Those two exceptions bear notice: I Want You was sung early in the play, when the drunken writer’s former sweetheart, Kate (Chiara Trentalange), came by to say goodbye, before leaving for Boston and marriage.  Whether motivated by pride, stubbornness, or self-loathing, Nick let’s her go.  Once she’s walking away, he begins to sing, but for unfathomable reasons, Kate is given the second verse.  Sure, this shows that they want to be together, but completely defeats what could have been a moving, important moment of character development.  The audience never sees any evidence that Nick possesses a lick of talent, but hearing him pour out his heart poetically in this song could have done that.  The chance is ruined, however, when Kate begins to sing the song.  Instead of revealing Nick as a rare poetic talent, we find that they both lapse into metaphor when thinking about the other.  Kate is gone, as is the opportunity to show Nick as something more than a drunk.  The other song that actually suits the story is Duquesne Whistle, an upbeat song (and the most current – by twenty plus years) that serves almost as an apotheosis for a particular character (no, no one is actually deified, but a character who had always been limited in his life is fully released, shown in all his potential glory).

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
Aidan Wharton and cast

But other than those two, the way the songs are used is baffling.  For example, when Gene and his mistress, Mrs. Neilsen, have a confrontation about their future, we’re given Is Your Love In Vain?  The opening of the song certainly fits the circumstance:

Do you love me, or are you just extending goodwill?
Do you need me half as bad as you say, or are you just feeling guilt?
I've been burned before and I know the score
So you won't hear me complain
Will I be able to count on you
Or is your love in vain?

So far, so good.  The fact that this stanza could be offered by just about anyone questioning a relationship doesn’t really matter; it fits the situation they’re in.  That, however, is quickly shot to pieces, though, when we get to:

Well I've been to the mountains and I've been in the wind
I've been in and out of happiness
I have dined with kings, I've been offered wings
And I've never been too impressed.

No one who has ever set foot in this dismal, possibly cursed boarding house could utter these lines.  They’ve never dined with kings, they’ve never been offered wings [for nearly thirty years I thought the line was rings, not wings], and if they had, they certainly would have been impressed.  The suspension of disbelief is ruined, as we’re jolted once again out of the moment.

Something similar, if not more egregious, happens with Like a Rolling Stone, perhaps one of Dylan’s most well-known choruses, if not songs.  And the first verse, as well as the chorus, work well after another confrontation (there are many confrontations in the play):

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you’re bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

But the very next words might as well be in Ancient Greek for all that they apply to the situation at hand:

You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

What does this have to do with the story that’s being presented in front of us?  Absolutely nothing, of course.  Who is Miss Lonely?  Who’s the mystery tramp?  Who got juiced in the finest schools?  None of it means anything in the context of this play.

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
            Sharae Moultrie and Matt Manuel

Worse still is the decision to combine separate songs together into some unholy mélange.  Jokerman and Sweetheart Like You are two of Dylan’s many overlooked masterpieces (yes, I probably think too many of Dylan’s songs are masterpieces, but I’m happy to defend each assertion at any time), and despite being released on the same album, they are distinct songs about (I think) completely different subjects.  Here, they’re remixed together – a verse or two from one, followed by one from the other – set to a musical arrangement that removes the distinctions.  And for what?  The combined song doesn’t move the story forward any more than the other songs do.

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
                          Jill Van Velzer

Almost none of the songs are performed in their totality, and almost none of them were so out-of-place as the opening of Hurricane.  The instrumental introduction was a high-point of the show, as it is every time I hear it in any context (it causes goose bumps, just as it did the first time I heard it thirty years ago – I was a bit behind; it was already twenty-years old by then, having been written around the time I was born), but the lyrics were jarringly wrong for the plot.  Joe wasn’t arrested for a triple murder in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966 (thirty-two years after the play takes place); he was incarcerated in Minnesota for a robbery in the late 1920s.  So here, charitably, Joe is prophesizing about someone else, not himself.  Moreover, a cursory internet search shows that while emergency lights did begin to appear on police cars in the 1930s, they were far from a common reference point (“And so Patty calls the cops / And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin’ / In the hot New Jersey night”).

This is far from the only anachronism in the play.  Beyond what I suspect is a fanciful racial integration in the house (Duluth wasn’t Jim Crow, but I wonder if it was as desegrated as the play makes it out to be), what really surprised me was the men using vulgarity in front of the women.  Granted, this means nothing today, but in 1934, it certainly did.

Getting back to the music, the odd arrangements turned most of the songs into chorus pieces.  While one or two characters would sing lead, parts (or all) of the ensemble would gather around old-timey microphones to sing in the background.  Since the individual performers were all wearing mics, this was clearly a design decision, but I have no idea what it was meant to represent.  Moreover, by making almost every song a group performance, it prevented the audience from appreciating the individual skills of the performers.

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
                 Sharae Moultrie

The best part of the entire performance, for me at least, was the closing song, Pressing On.  Written at the peak of Dylan’s Christian Rock/Gospel period (circa 1980), it’s a song that’s meant to evoke the sounds of a church choir, and the cast does an excellent job of doing just that.

When the tour of Girl from the North Country stopped in Cincinnati a few months back, my brother told me that he watched more than half of the audience leave at intermission (apparently my sister-in-law had dearly wished to join them), so I paid attention to see if something similar happened here.  Sadly, it did.  The house was sparse to begin with, but there were noticeably fewer people in the audience for the second act.  I can’t say I that I blame them for making that decision.

I wish I could say that this play was just a crass attempt to make money by putting already established songs on the stage, as so many other jukebox musicals appear to be, but that argument doesn’t hold up here.  First, very few of Dylan’s “greatest hits” are included in the play.  Second, most songs are given homogenized arrangements that divorce them from anything a casual Dylan listener would recognize (to de-fang even the snippet of Idiot Wind, turning it into an anodyne hymn seems almost criminal), and finally, they’re presented in such a nonsensical context that the beauty and magic of the lyrics (which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature) are rendered completely meaningless and limp.  As such, I’m left with the perplexing question: who thought this was a good idea?

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway Dallas
           Jay Russell and Sharae Moultrie

I could go on for many pages on what a writer of McPherson’s proven skill could have done with Dylan’s catalogue, not to mention the glory that could have produced had the two worked on something new, instead of recycling Dylan’s old material, but I’ve already gone on much too long.  As such, I’ll simply say, sadly, that McPherson, Dylan, the performers, and especially the audience deserved better than what this turned out to be.

The National Tour of Girl from the North Country plays for Broadway Dallas at Music Hall in Fair Park through Sunday evening, April 21. 

Photos credits: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade


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