You can practically see the tumbleweeds blowing through the hearts of the characters in “Girl From the North Country.” This achingly beautiful musical weds the songs of Bob Dylan to a book, by Conor McPherson, that explores the unsettled destinies of the denizens of a boarding house in Duluth, Minn., during the Great Depression.
What unites the characters, diverse though they are, is a sense of tenuousness, the feeling that the earth will never feel firm beneath their feet, that they will forever be on a search for a resting place. In short that they will remain adrift, “without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone,” to borrow a famous Dylan lyric that is emblematic of the musical’s central theme, the loneliness that follows the characters like an unshakable shadow.
McPherson, the acclaimed Irish playwright (“The Weir,” “Shining City”) who also directs the musical with an admirably sensitivity, here himself bravely sets forth for new territory, at least geographically. (His prior work virtually all has been set in Ireland.) But he brings with him his customary delicacy of feeling, and his ability to create enriching, emotionally rewarding theater from compassionately excavating the lives of seemingly ordinary, unprepossessing characters.
The year is 1934, and the boarding house run by Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), does not seem the safe harbor anyone with more options would choose. His wife, Elizabeth, played by Mare Winningham, appears to be in the throes of dementia and is often unable to function, requiring the Laines’ informally adopted daughter, Kimber Elayne Sprawl’s somberly affecting Marianne — who, unusually for Duluth of the era, is African-American — to take over much of the housekeeping duties, alongside her father. The Laines’ son, Gene (Colton Ryan, moving in his flailing confusion), has grand literary ambitions and a taste for too much booze. He scorns his father’s insistence that he get a job — a demand that’s not idly made, since the Laine family finances are in dire straits.
In its loosely but intricately patterned form, “Girl From the North Country” resembles a collection of linked short stories, as McPherson weaves together the various characters’ attempts to find stability in an unstable world. Among these are a failed businessman, Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch, hiding anguish under bravado), his wife, Mrs. Burke (Luba Mason, prickly but compassionate), and their adult son, Elias (Todd Almond), who is clearly mentally disabled, although his loving parents are sparing with the details of their past, for reasons that will become tragically clear.
Arriving late one night, warmly welcomed by Nick despite the house being almost full, is Reverend Marlowe, played with smarmy knowingness by Matt McGrath, who sells Bibles for a living, although his behavior does not exactly suggest profound piety. With him — purely by chance, since they teamed up together to search for a place to stay — arrives Joe Scott (a brooding Austin Scott), a former boxer and, it transpires, a former convict.
The show’s breadth of characters, and its many storylines (including Marianne’s pregnancy, which Nick hopes to, well, remedy by a marriage to a much older, local shoe-mender, Tom Nelis’s Mr. Perry), might seem a challenge to contain within the scope of a single musical, especially as it includes performances of more than 20 Dylan songs (some only excerpts).
And it’s true that some of the people we meet — the doctor (Robert Joy) who occasionally adds narration, Jeannette Bayardelle’s Mrs. Neilsen, who is having an open-secret affair with Nick, or Gene’s only briefly seen girlfriend, Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) — either recede from the proceedings for stretches or disappear quickly. But McPherson has the ability to capture a character’s essence in a few delicate strokes. And what’s more, the characters’ almost evanescent quality illustrates something essential about them, their fragile existence on the margins of life. At times “Girl From the North Country” almost seems to be a musical peopled by ghosts, or by people who are halfway to disappearing before our very eyes. (This is not an idly chosen metaphor, by the way; McPherson has something of a penchant for ghosts.)
This show cannot be classified as a Bob Dylan jukebox musical, as Twyla Tharp’s ill-conceived, ill-fated “The Times They Are A-Changin’” could. The songs are — praise the Lord and pass the confetti — not ham-handedly twisted into narrative-driving diversions. (I’d argue that knowledge of or affection for Dylan’s music is by no means a prerequisite for enjoyment.)
Rather, the songs are, for the most part, presented as private reveries, musical windows into the furtive souls of the characters — where love grows only to falter, and hard fates dog their footsteps. (There are a few collective ensemble numbers, such as a rare joyous hootenanny that most of the boarding-house company takes part in.) The orchestrations, by Simon Hale, blend the folk and country influences that are strong in Dylan with more overtly soulful, bluesy sounds. The music-making, by a band mostly hidden in the shadows onstage, is superb. What’s perhaps most remarkable is the symbiosis between Dylan’s lyrical but earthbound voice and McPherson’s own admixture of humanity and poetry; there’s a seamlessness between book and score here that is rare, if not unprecedented, in a musical derived from existing (and celebrated) songs.
Also crucial to the musical’s effectiveness is the smooth integration of its ensemble. The absolutely unforgettable Winningham may perhaps be classified as first among equals, for the richness and complexity of her performance in a demanding role; she makes Elizabeth’s wandering mind, which can snap suddenly into blunt and even comically vulgar focus at disconcerting moments, seem as transparent as glass, or as jagged as a shattered mirror. (The slight twang in her singing voice is also ideally suited to Dylan’s songs.) But Sanders is also superb as the haunted and harassed but still striving Nick, while Bayardelle’s Mrs. Neilsen has both a firmness of spirit and a touching sense of resignation — as if she knows, despite promises, that life will turn against her in the end.
There’s a sad, piercing irony in the musical’s final song (save for a post-ending encore), “Forever Young.” Although most of the musical’s characters are middle aged or younger, you get the sad sense that virtually none has held on to even the vestiges of the hopes, dreams and sense of possibility that should be the spiritual hallmarks of youth. Even the youngest characters have, by the musical’s conclusion, largely withered into hollowed-out husks — not forever young, but rather prematurely defeated.
“Girl from the North Country” opened at the Belasco Theatre on March 5, 2020.
Creative: Book by Conor McPherson; Music by Bob Dylan; Lyrics by Bob Dylan; Featuring songs by Jacques Levy and Robert Hunter; Featuring songs with lyrics by Jacques Levy and Robert Hunter; Music orchestrated by Simon Hale; Music arranged by Simon Hale; Directed by Conor McPherson; Movement Direction by Lucy Hind; Scenic Design by Rae Smith; Costume Design by Rae Smith; Lighting Design by Mark Henderson; Sound Design by Simon Baker.
Producers: Tristan Baker, Charlie Parsons, Runaway Entertainment, Steven Lappin, Sony Music Entertainment/Sony ATV, David Mirvish, Len Blavatnik, The Dodgers, Eric and Marsi Gardiner, Dianne Roberts, John Gore Organization, Nederlander Presentations, Inc.,Tommy Mottola, Independent Presenters Network, Rod Kaats, Diana DiMenna, MaryBeth O’Connor, Barbara H. Freitag, Patrick Catullo, The Old Vic and The Public Theater.
Cast: Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Matt McGrath, Tom Nelis, Colton Ryan, Jay O. Sanders, John Schiappa, Austin Scott, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams and Mare Winningham.