I reviewed this show at The Public Theater November 2018. As there are some changes and it’s well worth seeing, I quote myself and amend to conceivably bring renewed attention.
Yes, these are the songs of Bob Dylan, but not like you’ve ever heard them before or are likely to again. (Many are, in fact, fairly obscure.) And no, you don’t have to be a Dylan fan to appreciate this extraordinary musical. The unexpected choice of playwright (and admirer) Conor McPherson by Dylan’s management when looking for someone to use the icon’s catalog in a full length piece, has resulted in a pithy, entertaining show unlike any other featuring a contemporary writer’s oeuvre.
This is neither a jukebox musical with flimsy story (On Your Feet, Mama Mia), a biopic (Beautiful, The Jersey Boys, The Donna Summer Musical, The Cher Show…), a piece that tries to fit already written songs into a story format (The Last Ship), nor the attempt of a practitioner from another genre to break through to Broadway (Capeman).
McPherson, an Irishman, climbs inside the mood and intentions of these American songs without attempting to perfectly fit each to a character and situation. In addition to solos, he employs the company as a chorus creating in sync atmosphere. Everything seems to fit.
No stranger to darkness (The Weir, Shining City, The Night Alive), the playwright has written a gripping, evocative tale of drifters and fugitives washed up at a Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s home town) boarding house in 1934. Depression and hopelessness pervade, yet this is not a one-note chronicle. There are parentheses of warmth, joy, and exuberance. Characters are well drawn, relationships multifaceted and credible. We care.
“Duluth is an iron ore shipping town where each and every winter seems like seven months long,” begins intermittent narrator, Doc Walker. (Robert Joy channeling Garrison Keillor.) Nick Laine (newly cast Jay O. Sanders, who grounds the role in barely controlled desperation) and his mentally unstable wife, Elizabeth, own the deep-in-debt establishment at which we find ourselves. A fantastic, too rarely seen Mare Winningham whose impassioned singing is as riveting as her acting.
Son, Gene (Colton Ryan inhabiting the role once more like second skin), is a ne’er-do-well drunk. Pregnant (raped?) daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl – palpably proud and wary), who is black, was abandoned and adopted by the family. She’s a smart, responsible spitfire. In order to secure her future, Nick is trying to set her up with septuagenarian shoemaker, Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), a widower by whom she’s appalled.
Nick is having an affair with boarder Mrs. Nielsen (Jeannette Bayardelle- gorgeous gospel voice), to which his wife, who fades in and out of lucidity, turns a blind eye. Still, he loves Elizabeth. Gene angrily watches as his love, Kate (Caitlin Houlahan – wait for the beautiful duet), agrees to marry someone with more to offer. Marianne is approached by passing-through boxer-with-a-secret offering admiration and a possible way out. Newly cast Joe Scott exudes dignity.
Also passing through with secrets are grafter/Bible salesman, Reverend Marlowe (newly cast Matt McGrath- a bit squawky), and boarders Mr. and Mrs. Burke: Burke – Mark Kudisch, and Luba Mason (two familiarly solid, veterans who act, sing, and, it turns out, play drums!) with their autistic, adult son Elias. (Todd Almond, whose surprise vocal solo delivers in spades.)
Finances exert a strangulating vise, relationships fray and form, secrets are revealed, tragedy ensues, yet the play ends with isolated incidents of hope.
Congratulations to fine casting. Voices are strong and stirring. Songs that were originally muscular, but one-tone, become theatrically wrenching. Emotional connections are visible even when subjugated. The company moves like a single organism.
Conor McPherson directs his large, excellent cast (only The Ferryman compares) with a sure, creative hand. Musical numbers are fluidly integrated, never sacrificing impact of dialogue. Back-up vocalists come together and dissolve into a scene.
Standing, period microphones (not functional), around which singers gather, take us out of narrative. One can’t help but wonder how much more involved we’d be less aware of performance. A party with separate conversations and dancing in the background seems completely organic. Every player has honed specific attributes. Relationships are vivid and often subtly expressed.
McPherson’s directing skill is highlighted by the evocation of Elizabeth Laine’s madness. Mercurial mood change, pendulum swing from haze to piercing lucidity, vocal infection, wildly creative physical manifestation. He and Winningham create a credibly unstable mental state colored by history.
Scenic design is somewhat more elaborate than downtown, with augmentation of descending, often translucent walls and a couple of scenic background scrims. Neither addition is necessary, the latter, somewhat distracting. Furniture is just right, though it seems to be moved on and off stage considerably more than the play’s last iteration. Costume design is historically right and aesthetically appealing. Both Rae Smith.
Sound design by Simon Baker works hand in hand with wonderful orchestrations and arrangements by Simon Hale. (Additional arrangements by Simon Hale and Conor McPherson.)
Sometimes stylized synchronicity, at others actual dancing, Lucy Hind’s movement direction is expressive and redolent, making the imaginative most of a great many people in a small area without ever seeming false or chaotic.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening-The Family: Colton Ryan (Gene), Kimber Elayne Sprawl (Marianne), Mare Winningham (Elizabeth), Jay. O. Sanders (Nick)
Girl from the North Country
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Through December 23, 2018
111 West 44th Street