Theater Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY (North American Tour)

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by Barnaby Hughes on February 17, 2024

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Girl from the North Country is one of those shows that sounds promising in the abstract: a musical incorporating songs by Bob Dylan. Whatever you think of Dylan’s singing voice, it’s undeniable that he wrote some great songs–and a few of them are used in this show. But unless you’re a diehard Dylan fan, you won’t recognize most of these songs. They largely post-date his 1960s heyday and are performed in a more old-timey gospel style, with vocal harmonies and a small acoustic back-up band. The truth is: Simon Hale’s arrangements of Dylan’s songs as performed in Girl from the North Country sound much better than Dylan’s own recordings.

Jeremy Webb
Jay Russell and Sharaé Moultrie
Sharaé Moultrie and Matt Manuel

The problem with Girl from the North Country is not the music, but Conor McPherson’s play. Dylan’s songs are incidental, music in a variety show. Neither the plot, nor its setting in Duluth, Minnesota, 1934, are derived from Dylan. By contrast, a musical like Million Dollar Quartet is all about Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis and the music they made together; the plot is entirely secondary. In Girl from the North Country, McPherson’s dull and depressing plot is primary, offers no message of hope, and the characters are hard to like.

Jennifer Blood 
Chiara Trentalange (center) and The Cast
Matt Manuel

Set entirely in a guesthouse, the play centers on its owner Nick Laine, his mentally-ill wife Elizabeth, their pregnant daughter Marianne, troubled son Gene, and an odd assortment of opportunistic guests. The Great Depression has got everyone down on their luck, not least Nick, who is about to lose his home and business to the bank. Two runaway convicts arrive in the middle of the night purporting to be a Bible salesman and a boxer. The latter character seems to have been created just so that McPherson could include Dylan’s song “Hurricane,” about the imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter.

Alan Ariano
Sharaé Moultrie
The Cast

For an Irish playwright, McPherson authentically captures the Americanness of the setting, which is centered on that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. Although racism is a theme in Girl from the North Country, it is not explored consistently. The boxer Joe Scott clearly suffers discrimination, but Marianne, a black girl raised in a white family, does not. Mr. Perry, who seeks her hand in marriage, makes no mention of her color. Rather, it is the child in her womb that provokes his charity.

Jill Van Velzer
Chiara Trentalange and Ben Biggers
Aidan Wharton, David Benoit, Jennifer Blood and Jeremy Webb

Most of the cast members sing, while some also play instruments, such as Jill Van Velzer on drums. Others sing and dance as part of the ensemble, but have no lines to speak. John Schiappa overacts as Nick Laine, which in some ways suits his character. Jennifer Blood does the best she can with the role of Elizabeth Laine, but her character’s mental illness is not realistically drawn. Two of the more sympathetic characters, Marianne Laine and Mrs. Nielsen, played by Sharaé Moultrie and Carla Woods respectively, sing beautifully and add a welcome measure of love and tenderness to an otherwise dreary and tense plot. Jay Russell as the pathetic Mr. Perry provides the only comic relief.

Carla Woods
Ben Biggers, Sharaé Moultrie, Jennifer Blood and John Schiappa
Aidan Wharton and The Cast

This touring production of a play that premiered in London, 2017, and was a hit on Broadway, is unlikely to win Girl from the North Country new audiences. Despite hearing one man during the intermission saying that he loved the show in New York, a significant portion of the audience did not return to their seats on opening night in Chicago last Wednesday. And many of those who stayed seemed disappointed. Having reviewed McPherson’s Shining City, I can attest that this is not one of his best efforts. It purports to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. In other words, it’s a classic bait and switch cannibalizing Dylan’s fanbase. And for this reviewer, the nail in the coffin of this production was the omission of the title song.

photos © Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Girl from the North Country
national tour
reviewed at CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe St — ends February 25, 2024 in Chicago
tour continues; for North American dates and cities, visit Girl from the North Country
also touring Australia & New Zealand

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lynne March 17, 2024 at 11:59 am

Wow. I disagree. I loved the choreography, the voices, the wide range of characters, the interweaving of conflicts, the lack of a happy ending (for all but two of them) but also the lack of some foreshadowed ominous outcomes (suicide especially).

I didn’t go expecting a Dylan concert. I did see the Robert Icke Hamlet in NYC with the Dylan soundtrack in 2022. That was weird, I thought, but the arrangements of the Dylan songs in this show, even though a lot of them were unfamiliar to me, were fully appropriate to the time and place of the setting.


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