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.
Caitlin Houlahan and Colton Ryan
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 painterly mood and intentions of these American songs without attempting to perfectly fit each to a character. Instead, in addition to solos, he employs the company as a chorus creating perfectly in sync atmosphere. Everything seems to fit.
Jeannette Bayardelle in foreground with the Company
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 (the reliable Stephen Bogardus) and his mentally unstable wife, Elizabeth (a fantastic, too rarely seen Mare Winningham), own the deep-in-debt establishment at which we find ourselves.
Kimber Sprawl and Sydney James Harcourt
Son, Gene (Colton Ryan), is a ne’er-do-well drunk. Pregnant (raped?) daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl- gravitas/dignity and voice), who is black, was abandoned and adopted by the family. She has all the qualities her brother lacks. In order to secure for 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), 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), agrees to marry someone with more to offer. Marianne is approached by passing-through boxer-with-a-secret, Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt- great presence, fine vocals), offering admiration and a possible way out.
Luba Mason in foreground and the Company
Also passing through with secrets are grifter, Bible salesman, Reverend Marlowe (a slimy David Pittu), and boarders Mr. Burke – Mark Kudisch, Mrs. Burke – Luba Mason (two familiarly solid veterans who, it turns out, also play drums!) and their autistic, adult son Elias (Todd Almond).
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. There’s not a weak link here. Voices are strong and stirring with inflection that comprehends time and place. Emotional connections are visible even when subjugated. The company moves like a single organism.
Todd Almond in foreground and the Company
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. Several actors ably double on instruments. Back-up vocalists come together and dissolve into a scene. A party with separate conversations and dancing in the background seems completely organic. Almost every featured player has honed specific attributes. Relationships are vivid.
Scenic and Costume Design by Rae Smith are, in the first case, evocative and unintrusive and in the second, historically right and aesthetically appealing.
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). Hopefully, they’ll make a CD of the accomplished score.
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.
Ensemble: Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Mare Winningham and Stephen Bogardus
Girl from the North Country
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Through December 23, 2018
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street