BWW Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Bursts with Emotion in the Hands of a Stellar Cast
Set in Bob Dylan's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, writer and director Conor McPherson's GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is equal parts bleak and beautiful. The busy story centers on the Laine family and their guest house; stressed father and husband Nick (Donald Sage Mackay) is busy caring for his wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben), whose dementia has progressed to the point where she's like a rowdy child with a sailor's mouth. His issues double with their children Gene (Colin Bates), an alcoholic, would-be writer and Marianne (Gloria Obianyo), their adopted Black daughter who's several months pregnant.
Nick is at risk of losing the guest house, which is home to a ragtag bunch of guests including widow Mrs. Neilsen (Rachel John); Mr. Burke (David Ganly), a former businessman who lost everything in the Depression, his wife (Anna-Jane Casey) and adult son Elias (Steffan Harri), who has the mind of a young child; and new entries Joe Scott (Shaq Taylor), the ex-prisoner convicted for another man's crime; and the trickster bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Finbar Lynch).
On top of the house's residents, there's the town doctor-slash-narrator Dr. Walker (Ferdy Roberts), Mr. Perry (Sidney Kean), the elderly shoemaker in talks to marry Marianne, and a bunch of townspeople who appear as needed. The sheer size of the cast makes it difficult to get too much insight into any one character's journey, although the story does its best to follow this crew as they affect the Laine family.
Brayben is the clear standout in this production. She plays the matriarch slowly losing touch like a match in a pile of kindling; to elaborate, she's either seated in her chair, smoldering at the world around her, or she's loudly blazing her way through a damning revelation or accusation. Her "Like a Rolling Stone" is a spectacular act one closer, and the detail put into her performance throughout the show makes it near impossible to look away from her.
GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is blessed with a phenomenal cast; every actor on stage makes an impact, but given the sheer volume of characters they only get so long to do so. Obianyo is angelic as Marianne, her lower register working wonders with Dylan's catalogue, and her scenes with Taylor make for a sweet subplot. Ganly, Casey and Harri are always interesting as the Burkes, with an emotionally-rich and heartbreaking storyline that results in a beautiful duet between Ganly and Casey (and an on-point performance by Harri, although it doesn't necessarily match Elias's character).
One of the benefits of a large ensemble piece doubles as a downside-it allows for numerous storylines to be presented. There are a few ideas tossed around and then forgotten, but none so inexplicably as the relationship between Gene and Katherine Draper (Gemma Sutton), a governess who arrives at the house, announces that she's moving to Boston, and tells Gene that she's agreed to marry another man who can provide her a secure future. Up until her arrival, it wasn't even suggested that Gene had a romantic interest, and while their performance of Dylan's "I Want You" is lovely it doesn't have any emotional leverage or standing.
There is a bit of disconnect between the songs and the story, too, as characters don't sing as if they own the songs. The use of old-fashioned silver microphones makes the singing more like a performance within a performance-and they're really beautiful interpretations of Dylan's works-but it doesn't feel like a traditional musical. Maybe that's a good thing, and maybe it's not. What can be said is that despite a lack of connection overall, there's something about GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY that can make you feel. Looking back, there were moments where I felt deeply during the show, but after leaving the quiet of the theatre it became difficult to identify or make sense of some of those emotions.
Regardless, GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is a refreshing take on the jukebox musical category. It's an original, albeit sad and somewhat scattered, story with a powerhouse cast that will make you feel something-even if that something doesn't necessarily have a name.
Mirvish's GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY runs through November 24 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/girl-from-the-north-country
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann