McPherson and Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”

North Country
The stage at the Public Theater with a bass viol on it as the audience gathers for “Girl From the North Country.”

It shouldn’t work. After all, jukebox musicals are an abuse to the songs, most presented as a verse and a chorus or two, the idea of the music enough, so move along. With 20 of Bob Dylan’s songs sampled, this has to be much the same, treating songs that are themselves carefully crafted tales as throwaways. It shouldn’t work. The songs of a book musical are created to help move the plot. Restricted even to the mammoth Dylan songbook, playwright Conor McPherson was constrained in plot imagining by that and by the interference of Dylan’s own tales.

But it does work.  McPherson has taken bits and pieces of a range of Dylan’s songs and has wrapped them around a story that seems peculiarly apt to the themes of the work of the greatest American poet/songwriter of the past half century (and more) but that stands on its own. The limited run of Girl From the North Country at the Public Theater is almost over, but there wasn’t an empty seat in the house.

The setting is Duluth, Minnesota, Thanksgiving time in 1934, six-and-a-half years before Robert Zimmerman was born there. The story is one so fitting and so common to the American tradition, one of the various and fractured lives under the roof of a boarding house–this one heading to foreclosure. There is a disgraced boxer, a drunken would-be writer, a fallen preacher, a crazy woman and much more.  So much more. They are the singers and, sometimes, the musicians. The cast is large, so large it is dangerously close to confusion but, of the characters, each has enough strength to rise as an individual and capture our attention.

The  sets, which include blown-up old photographs of the upper Midwest, evokes the vision of America behind so many of Dylan’s songs. The cast, with three major African-American characters in a white-dominated milieu, also reflects Dylan’s concerns and influences.

As a Dylan fan since 1963, I would have liked to hear more of the songs (the title one is heard only for a few seconds and in the background), especially since they were performed so well. I was not as disappointed, though, as I might have thought, for the songs are only one aspect of this musical. They don’t always further the plot, though sometimes they do, but they all seem to belong, even when it appears that what could be a distracting subplot was added simply to justify their inclusion. But life is full of uncollected threads and the haunting rendition of “I Want You” that results makes this one worthwhile.

As I did with Come From Away, the musical set on Newfoundland on 9/11 and the days thereafter, I approached Girl From the North Country cautiously. I had no expectation of either musical being any good and was more inclined to suspect exploitation. I had a reaction of astonished pleasure to both–and was reminded of the former by the ensemble performance mixed with individual story in the latter.

Coming from London’s West End, I am a little surprised that Girl From the North Country didn’t immediately land on Broadway. I hope it is headed there. It is far and away the best new musical I have seen in years, only Come From Away coming close.

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