I have reviewed this previously, quote myself and made additions to 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).
Mare Winningham and Jay O. Sanders
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. Though songs don’t specifically refer to characters, they speak to the moment. All have been chosen (you’ll be familiar with very few) and arranged to reflect the American heartland during that era.
No stranger to darkness (The Weir, Shining City, The Night Alive), the playwright has written an evocative tale of those way down on their luck, drifters and fugitives washed up at a Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s home town) boarding house in 1934. Desperation runs hand in hand with warmth and exuberance. Characters are well drawn, relationships multifaceted and credible.
Jeanette Bayardelle and the Company
“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 (Jay O. Sanders, who grounds the role in barely controlled fatalism) and his mentally unstable wife, Elizabeth, own the deep-in-debt establishment at which we find ourselves. The too rarely seen Mare Winningham, whose impassioned singing is as riveting as her acting, creates a woman in her own mercurial world.
Son, Gene (Coli Bates inhabiting the role), is a ne’er-do-well alcoholic. Pregnant (raped?) daughter, Marianne (Kimber Elaybe 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 and his own, Nick is trying to set her up with septuagenarian shoemaker, Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), a widower by whom she’s appalled. The script says he’s 70. He looks and acts a palsied 85. A disconnect.
Austin Scott and Kimber Elaybe Sprawl
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), reluctantly agrees to marry someone more stable. Marianne is approached by passing-through boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott, credible and appealing).
Also passing through with secrets are grafter/Bible salesman, Reverend Marlowe (Matt McGrath), 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 gospel 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 (Jordan Thaler CSA, Heidi Griffiths CSA) Acting is excellent. Voices are strong and clear. Songs that originally were muscular, but one-tone when performed by their author, theatrically change. Emotional connections are visible even when subjugated. The company moves like a single organism.
Todd Almond and the Company
Conor McPherson directs his large cast 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 – volatile mood change, pendulum swing from haze to piercing lucidity, vocal infection, wildly creative physical manifestation – creating a credibly unstable mental state colored by history.
In addition to minimal, apt furniture, scenic design is comprised of descending, often translucent walls and a couple of background scrims. Neither is necessary, the latter, somewhat distracting costume design is historically and aesthetically right. Both Rae Smith.
Sound design by Simon Baker works hand in hand with original 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: Robert Joy
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
North Country on Broadway
111 West 44th Street