Since its 2017 debut in London, Girl from the North Country has maintained a strong presence in the theatre world at large. In the fall of 2019, the musical ran for several weeks in Toronto, Canada. It’s currently on a limited run at London’s Gielgud Theatre in the West End through February 1, 2020. The production will make its Broadway debut at the Belasco Theater in New York on February 7.
Reading the program at my seat, I was struck by how Girl from the North Country took shape a few years ago under writer-director Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer). Bob Dylan‘s management team reached out to McPherson to see if he wanted to use music from Dylan’s discography in a show. The result of the venture is not a traditional musical per se, but one that’s a “conversation between the songs and the story,” as McPherson characterizes it.
Girl from the North Country is a carefully rendered musical about 13 people in Duluth, Minnesota. Their intersecting fictional stories take place during the Great Depression, in 1934, several years before Dylan’s birth there. With that many characters under focus, there’s a risk of having too many threads to follow. However, the production manages to stay just shy of that mistake because of the compelling stories unfolding.
The main setting is a guesthouse operated by Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay), who tends to the day-to-day business primarily on his own. Unfortunately, the bank has given notice to him on outstanding debts, leaving him scratching his head on ways to come up with the money in time. Nick’s wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben) is suffering from dementia, but she is well aware that he’s been having an affair with lodger Mrs. Neilsen (Rachel John). Nick and Elizabeth have two children, Gene (Colin Bates) and Marianne (Gloria Obianyo).
Struggling writer Gene is the Laines’ biological child, whereas Marianne was taken in by Elizabeth many years before. Marianne, who is African American, is pregnant, with few options for her future. There are two other main African American characters: Mrs. Neilsen, already mentioned, and a former boxer seeking a new start, Joe Scott (Shaq Taylor). McPherson’s musical does not shy away from pointing out contradictions in race relations: Gene is affectionate with his adopted sister, but hostile and condescending in a first encounter with Scott.
Other lodgers include Mr. and Mrs. Burke (David Ganly and Anna-Jane Casey) and their grown son Elias (Steffan Harri), who has a mental disability, and salesman Reverend Marlowe (Finbar Lynch). Gene’s former flame Katherine Draper (Gemma Sutton) appears briefly to part ways with him and engage in a duet. It’s not clear to me why Dr. Walker (Ferdy Roberts) is the musical’s narrator; perhaps as the town’s doctor he would know the comings and goings of its residents and visitors.
Marianne’s quest to stand up for herself and resist Nick’s attempts to marry her off to general store proprietor Mr. Perry (Sidney Keane) is the strongest story amid this diverse assembly. Her forced politeness and wit are cutting and insightful, treated delicately and adroitly in Obianyo’s performance. McPherson’s scripts in the past have tended toward a little bit of ambiguity, but I would have liked to have known who was the father of the child. (There’s a dark hint when Marianne tells Gene that he wouldn’t believe her if she told him.)
In addition to seven ensemble members, there are three musicians under the direction of Tarek Merchant, bringing the count of on-stage performers to about 23. Yet the musical arrangements of Dylan’s tracks under the magnificent hand of Simon Hale suggest a more robust body, as if one had a full pit of musicians. It’s incredible that this production uses only instruments that one would find in the time period, as well as stand-up microphones for singers to gather around. That component and the small number of performers lend themselves well to quite a dynamic show.
Twenty tracks comprise the soundtrack for Girl from the North Country. McPherson uses songs from all over the Dylan discography. In my opinion, the best tracks were “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?),” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” and “Duquesne Whistle.” In Hale’s arrangements, the cast expertly layers superb vocals and harmonies as they maneuver through the upbeat and beautifully mournful chords. Obianyo, Taylor, Brayben, and Harri deserve special mention for the charm and emotion they imbue into the lyrics they sing.
Girl from the North Country is Conor McPherson’s first musical. Had I not known that he was Irish, I would have assumed that an American writer had developed it. Overall, he is very successful in portraying a cross-section of American life in the 1930s without delving into cliches. The characters are sensitively rendered with their talents and faults, resulting in a rich and complex story that is enjoyable and thought-provoking. During the intermission and right after final curtain, I heard a lot of interesting discussion points around me from fellow theatre goers.
The Gielgud Theatre is located on Shaftesbury Avenue, near the Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square Tube stations.