×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘Girl From the North Country’ Featuring Bob Dylan Songs

The music and especially the moody lyrics of Dylan songs take on fresh meaning in this revealing re-think by Conor McPherson.

With:
Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Stephen Bogardus, Sydney James Harcourt, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Sprawl, Chelsea Lee Williams, Mare Winningham.

Trailing clouds of glory from runs at London’s Old Vic and on the West End, Conor McPherson’s Depression-era treatment of classic Bob Dylan material vividly transforms individual songs into an extended cohesive narrative about America adrift in hard times. In this production now playing at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, songs like “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle” feel as if they were written specifically for the Depression, while an inspired ensemble of actor-singers are transformed into the heroes of their own stories, as well as characters in the lives of others.

It was perceptive of McPherson (“The Weir,” “Shining City”) to set the songs in a seedy boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934. Rae Smith’s barely furnished set has the sad, beat-down look of a house that has seen better, happier days. Her costumes — in dark greens, muddy browns, muted prints — hang limply on the characters like ill-fitting hand-me-downs, weighing them down. (The ugly head scarves are the perfect image for depression.) Upstage, a quartet of instrumentalists perform in the tightly focused manner of musicians playing for survival.

For reasons unknown, the staging suggests that the lives of the boarders are being broadcast on some kind of radio show. Robert Joy is wisely cast as Dr. Walker, who assumes the narrative chores for this program; but far from clarifying matters, the framework only confuses scenes that play perfectly well as snippets of boardinghouse life.

Sober lighting by Mark Henderson bathes the stage in concealing brown shadows that are strangely soothing. Even in the gloom all eyes are drawn to Mare Winningham, haggard and haunting as Elizabeth Laine, the depressed wife of Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus, solid as a rock), who owns the boarding house. Elizabeth is showing signs of early-onset dementia, a condition conveyed with slowly dawning dread by Winningham. Nick is frantic. Their son, Gene, a would-be writer played with a streak of would-be-writer egotism by Colton Ryan, is too self-absorbed to feel any filial duty to either parent.

Some of Dylan’s songs are a poor fit for this highly specific setting. Although expressively sung by the soulful Jeannette Bayardelle, “Went to See the Gypsy” doesn’t suit the independent character of the happily widowed Mrs. Neilsen. And “Like a Rolling Stone” seems a cruel choice as a reference to Elizabeth’s dementia – if that is, indeed, what it’s meant to be. “Tight Connection to My Heart,” on the other hand, makes perfect sense when sung by Kimber Sprawl, in the character of Marianne, the Laines’ adopted daughter, who is yearning for love.

It may be a lost cause to try to fit every chosen song into a plot-worthy moment in the show. But that doesn’t invalidate McPherson’s insight that Dylan’s narrative lyrics, mainly written in the 1960s and 70s, express a sense of existential detachment, of longing for connection that reflect the uncertainties of 1930s America.

“Slow Train” could be a young man’s conflicted feelings about his future. Here, it’s the lament of a mysterious wandering man named Joe Scott, all coiled tension in Sydney James Harcourt’s fine performance. As the thoughts of someone who doesn’t anticipate having much of a future, the song conveys a sense of dread that wouldn’t be out of place during the Great Depression. As counterpoint, “License to Kill” drops broad hints about Joe’s fears of what might be “comin’ up around the bend.”

In the end, it’s too joyless an intellectual exercise to sit in the theater trying to match song lyrics to specific emotional moments on stage. Better to sit back and just enjoy the music — and credit McPherson with giving each song the gift of clarity. If not always apropos to their dramatic moments, the lyrics are clearly intelligible. And truth be told, Winningham’s thoughtful delivery of both “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young” is a revelation — a revelation of the poems Dylan meant them to be.

Off Broadway Review: 'Girl From the North Country' Featuring Bob Dylan Songs

Public Theater / Newman Theater; 299 seats; $100 top. Opened October 1, 2018. Reviewed Sept. 28. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A presentation by the Public Theater of the Old Vic production of a play in two acts written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music & lyrics by Bob Dylan.

Creative: Sets & costumes, Rae Smith; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Simon Baker; orchestrations & arrangements, Simon Hale; movement director, Lucy Hind; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin.

Cast: Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Stephen Bogardus, Sydney James Harcourt, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Sprawl, Chelsea Lee Williams, Mare Winningham.

More Legit

  • Hugh Jackman'To Kill a Mockingbird' Broadway

    'To Kill a Mockingbird's' Starry Opening: Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and More

    The Shubert Theatre in New York City last was filled on Thursday night with Oscar winners, media titans, and, of course, Broadway legends who came out for the opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The starry guest list included Oprah Winfrey, Barry Diller, “Les Misérables” co-stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Gayle King, [...]

  • Pat Gelbart Obit Dead

    Actress Pat Gelbart, Wife of 'MASH' Creator, Dies at 94

    Pat Gelbart, widow of late “MASH” creator Larry Gelbart, died surrounded by family at her home in Westwood, Calif. on Dec. 11. She was 94. Gelbart was born in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1928 as Marriam Patricia Murphy. When she met her husband, Gelbart was an actress, known for the 1947 musical “Good News,” in which [...]

  • To Kill a Mockingbird review

    Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

    Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage-worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The ever-likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, [...]

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth to Appear on Stage in 'The Mother'

    Isabelle Huppert will appear opposite Chris Noth in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Mother.” It marks the U.S. premiere of the show. “The Mother” was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Huppert, an icon of European film, was Oscar-nominated for “Elle” and appears in the upcoming Focus Features [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Sunday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

  • Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary,

    Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary, 'Hugo Cabret' Musical

    Producers Tim Headington and Theresa Steele Page have unveiled Ley Line Entertainment with a Brian Wilson documentary and a “Hugo Cabret” musical in the works. Ley Line said it’s a content development, production, and financing company with projects spanning film, television, stage, and music. Headington financed and produced “The Young Victoria,” “Argo,” “Hugo,” and “World [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content