Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway at The Hobby Center

a stark and stunning production using deep cuts of Dylan!

By: May. 01, 2024
Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Broadway at The Hobby Center
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It seems so many theaters are challenging audiences this spring with shows that ask you to look deeper, and Broadway at the Hobby Center has joined the fray with GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY. It’s not your typical toe-tapper, nor is it a straightforward play. It is a “jukebox musical” featuring the spectacular songs of Bob Dylan, married with a weighty book by acclaimed playwright Conor McPherson. I would term it as a musical play, a narrative where songs are woven in, yet they do not carry plot points or move the story forward. Instead, Dylan's songs are inner monologues of the characters or emotional counterpoints to events happening before you. I would say it is haunting, revelatory, and a triumph of emotional narrative. It is not a flashy musical with special effects and huge dance numbers, but rather a somber meditation on Depression Era America and deep cuts of Bob Dylan’s songbook. It’s brilliant, and it will make you think. It’s akin to watching ghosts sing Americana arias, something you will never quite shake. 

The Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer) show was developed and launched in London and had an opening on Broadway right before the 2020 pandemic shut theaters down. As a result, I don’t think many people are familiar with GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, and this tour is seeking to remedy that. The year it came out in New York City, it was nominated for many Tonys and ultimately won Simon Hale the award for best orchestration. The real reason for seeing the show is to hear the immaculate performances of Bob Dylan’s songs by the cast of singers and musicians. The Conor McPherson script is a punch in the gut and is also quite impressive. But I walked away with a sense of new appreciation for what Dylan achieved in his career. 

The narrative is kicked off by a doctor who tells us we are in Duluth, Minnesota, during 1934, just days before Thanksgiving. The setup almost echoes Thorton Wilder’s OUR TOWN. Gene and Elizabeth Laine run a boarding house. She has some form of dementia, and her husband has turned to playing caretaker for her. They have an unemployed alcoholic son who aspires to be an author. Their adopted daughter is a young black woman left at their establishment who is with child but has no husband. We meet other guests in the boarding house, including a family who lost everything but their mentally challenged son, who has the strength of a man but the intellect of a child. There is also a widow who is expecting money through inheritance and is having an affair with Gene Laine. A Bible salesman and a boxer mysteriously appear one night, and they change the guests and owners forever through a series of events they initiate merely by showing up. The only connection to Bob Dylan is that he was born near Duluth in 1941, and that is a spiritual connection at best. Yet his songs become the innermost thoughts of each of these characters as they struggle with who they are and who they will become in this time. 

What is most striking is GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY doesn’t run through Bob Dylan’s “Greatest Hits,” as does something like MAMMA MIA did with ABBA. Instead, it picks unlikely deep cuts such as “Went to See the Gypsy” and “Slow Train.” Even when a huge Dylan song comes up, like “To Make You Feel My Love,” it is presented as a fragment rather than a showcase. Nothing about this show is obvious or simple, and that is the elegance of it. The singing and the arrangements are stellar. Rarely does anyone sing a song completely solo. Other cast members weave in and out to complement each other and harmonize.

This is a true ensemble in the purest sense of that word. Every actor is spot-on, and the musical delivery is pitch-perfect. Jennifer Blood brings Elizabeth’s illness to life for the audience and devastates us anytime she sings a number. Sharae Moultrie, as adopted daughter Marianne, has an inner light and grace that shines through anything she does. Jeremy Webb makes for a spectacular Revered Marlowe and mystifies the audience about his true spiritual leanings. Jill Van Velzer has the appearance and glows like a golden-era Hollywood starlet in her stunning turn as Mrs. Burke. John Schiappa and Carla Woods capture the lament of lovers that will never go anywhere fast. It’s amazing to listen to them. 

Technically, the set is stark and austere. Musicians are onstage with the cast, and we are presented with a sketch of a boarding house and a scrim. Lighting is kept dark most of the time, but it becomes blindingly bright or starry and mesmerizing at dramatic moments. This is a show that knows how to keep things small until it needs to explode. Conor McPherson directed the piece as well as wrote it, and his design team seems to have been a large part of his vision. 

I can’t recall a musical that is this well-acted or well-crafted in a long time. But it is a challenge to mine for the audience because it is heavy dramatically and avoids being a greatest hits package for Bob Dylan. Conor McPherson creates a musical much like he writes a play, pulling no emotional punches and keeping things mysterious even in their resolve. There are so many delicious lingering questions around GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY. The play goes by like a dark dream of what America was in a desperate time. There is hope here; surprisingly, it comes from Bob Dylan. His songs are like long-lost loves when you hear them done this way. The show gives many of his songs new context and new meaning to consider. He is the American Troubador, and this only cements his legacy. If you go to GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, it’s his voice that seems to emerge the most from a capable cast and a dramatically solid book. He takes us “swiftly through the storm” with his words and his melodies. 

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY  runs at the HOBBY CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS through Sunday, May 5th. It is a decidedly adult show with stark language and talks about many dramatic events that are mature in nature. Tickets can be acquired through the link below.

The photo is of Aidan Wharton and company. It was taken by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade 


Robert Andrews on 5/6/2024

The show was so well done. Inventive and entertaining. Superb performances across the board. 


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