To anyone questioning Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature four years ago, I suggest you get a ticket to Girl From the North Country. Irish playwright Conor McPherson crafted this uniquely intimate work, and whether you call it a jukebox musical, a play with music or simply a theatrical tone poem, it is a ravishingly performed ode to Dylan’s own poetic lyricism.
The tone is somber in the story set in a Duluth Minnesota boarding house circa 1934. It’s deep in the Great Depression and we’re introduced to a motley bunch in various stages of down and not quite out.
The hard-working proprietor on the brink of losing his livelihood. His addled wife has a fool’s wit. Their son is a frustrated writer with a drinking problem and their daughter, who was left at their doorstep as an infant, is being urged to marry an old man of means. We also meet a widow waiting like Godot for the bank to probate her late husband’s will. There’s a struggling couple with a mentally disabled son, a not so holy Bible salesman, an ex-con boxer and a doctor who dispenses both narration and morphine to deaden the pain.
Together, they make for a marvelous human tapestry, depicting a desperate effort to survive — just the right setup for a Bob Dylan song. And if the songs don’t quite match the storyline, they serve another purpose - illuminating something bigger, an emotion, an impulse, a message that transcends mere plot.
And what a treat to hear these beautifully trained voices wrap their cords around those stirring tunes. Simon Hale, credited as Orchestrator/Arranger and Musical Supervisor is as big a star as anyone on the stage graced with an extraordinary, multi-talented ensemble. Among them: Jay O. Sanders, Todd Almond, Robert Joy, Jeannette Bayardelle, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Austin Scott, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason and Mare Winningham delivering the most soulfully plaintive rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
It’s worth noting that two of Dylan’s most famous songs: “The Times They Are a Changin” and “Blowin in the Wind” didn’t make the cut. It’s a testament to McPherson’s disciplined artistry as both playwright and director finding just the right notes to make this moving work sing.