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Broadway Reviews

Girl from the North Country

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 5, 2020

Girl from the North Country. Written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. Music coordinator Dean Sharenow. Music director Marco Paguia. Movement director Lucy Hind. Scenic and costume design by Rae Smith. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Sound design by Simon Baker. Orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor Simon Hale. Additional arrangements by Conor McPherson and Simon Hale.
Cast: Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Jennifer Blood, Law Terrel Dunford, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Ben Mayne, Matt McGrath, Tom Nelis, Colton Ryan, Jay O. Sanders, John Schiappa, Austin Scott, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chiara Trentalange, Bob Walton, Chelsea Lee Williams, and Mare Winningham.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 6th Avenue)

Austin Scott and Kimber Elayne Sprawl
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson's dirge of a play about a collection of lost and desperately hurting souls caught in the jaws of the Great Depression, has somehow gotten lost itself in its move from downtown's Public Theater to Broadway's Belasco Theatre. With a few unfortunate changes here and there, possibly to accommodate its new larger quarters, it has solidified into a perplexing amalgam of thin-as-a-reed storytelling and powerhouse performances of reimagined tunes from the vast songbook of America's Nobel Prize-winning troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Set in Dylan's home turf of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934, Girl from the North Country takes place in a bankrupt rooming house operated by Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders). It is a waystation for a motley collection of searchers and wanderers seeking a brief respite from their unhappy lives before moving on.

The setting allows for a loose-knit narrative composed of snapshots of the boarders, alone, in pairs, or in larger intermingling groups. It is a familiar theatrical format that has been employed by, among others, Eugene O'Neill (The Iceman Cometh), Tennessee Williams ( Vieux Carré), and Lanford Wilson The Hot l Baltimore. But "loose-knit" doesn't have to mean a complete unraveling. There needs to be something holding the threads together. And that's the crux of the problem here.

Following successful runs in London, The Public mounted a well-received production in the fall of 2018, where the woof and warp of the show rested in the hands of the character of Nick Laine's wife, Elizabeth, then as now played by Mare Winningham. The changes in this particular portrayal are worth talking about because they have resulted in a diminishment of connectivity to the show's central theme.

Where Elizabeth formerly and heartbreakingly epitomized the obliteration of self into near invisibility (the very image of depression during the Depression), she now seems to be far more attuned to her surroundings, interacting with the others like an eccentric hostess under the ministrations of Dr. Walker (Robert Joy), a generous supplier (and self-medicated user) of morphine. When Ms. Winningham ends Act I with Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," it has morphed from being a wrenching cri de coeur into what now seems like a showcase cabaret performance, albeit a gorgeously rendered one.

Luba Mason
Photo by Matthew Murphy
That's the situation throughout. Lots of terrific individual and group performances of Dylan's songs in lovingly rendered arrangements by Simon Hale, with contributions by Conor McPherson, the playwright who also directs. Luba Mason as the wife of a down-on-his-luck businessman (Marc Kudisch) and mother to a mentally challenged son (Todd Almond) comes into her own in Act II when she accompanies herself on drums while singing the bejesus out of "Is Your Love in Vain?" And Mr. Almond, completely out of character, breaks into a soul-soaring "Duquesne Whistle." In a similar vein, most of the cast members have a turn in the spotlight, where they more than do justice to their designated numbers or to plowing deeply into bitter diatribes about their miserable circumstances.

But, you know, Girl from the North Country is not just a concert. There's supposed to be a play in there somewhere. We need something beyond the quick sketches of the characters who float in and out: Elizabeth and Nick's alcoholic would-be writer son Gene (Colton Ryan); Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), the black girl the white Laines have raised as a daughter; the elderly and lonely, yet financially secure Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), to whom Nick Laine wants to make a match with the 19-year-old Marianne. You've also got Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), a boarder and Nick's sometime lover who is awaiting an inheritance that will never come through; the unscrupulous itinerant Bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Matt McGrath); and Joe Scott (Austin Scott), a boxer and escaped convict who urges Marianne to run off with him. It is very much to their credit that the actors are able to make something from what little they have been given by way of defining their characters. And, damn, can they sing!

Maybe it's the change of venue, or possibly changes in Mr. McPherson's vision as the director, but what worked well in the smaller, more intimate Public Theater setting is lost in translation to the big Broadway stage. A quasi-religious tone that takes over toward the end, when Dr. Walker wraps things up in his capacity as this show's version of the stage manager from Our Town, sends the fuzzy portrait of a floundering community spinning off into yet another realm. It's altogether too much. The center, as the saying goes, cannot hold.

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