Girl from the North Country

Written on October 22nd, 2019

Heartbreaking Stories Give New Life to Dylan’s Songs

Back in 2016, I was surprised when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first songwriter to win the prestigious award. The rock legend, 75 at the time, received the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Dylan’s lyrics are poetry.

The problem is that when Dylan sings his own songs, it can be difficult to understand all the lyrics – and I had never bothered to try.  Indeed, his lyrics ARE poetic and the musical Girl from the North Country, now on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, is proving that.

Writer/Director Conor McPherson has taken Dylan’s songs and woven a story in and around them.  As McPherson himself says, it’s “not a ‘greatest hits’ compilation”.  He calls it “a conversation between the songs and the story”.  That’s a very suitable description: in this musical, the songs don’t drive the story (It’s not a typical juke box musical), nor does the story drive the songs.  The two are just there, and somehow they work well together.

The story is a look at life in the Dirty Thirties in Duluth, Minnesota. The depression years have not been good, and a group of misfits are living together in a boarding house that bears the brunt of the tough economic times.  In some ways, the story is a tribute to the great John Steinbeck’s depression novels, mixing the miserable existence of the characters in The Grapes of Wrath with the struggles of mental disabilities in Of Mice and Men.

Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay), due to the lack of employment, is trying to survive by offering his home as a boarding house.  His wife, Elizabeth (Katie Brayben), suffers mental illness, hears voices but yet has moments of clarity.  Their son Gene (Colin Bates) has a drinking problem and won’t hunt for a job, preferring to think he could be a writer.  Their Black foster-daughter Marianne (Gloria Obianyo) was left on their doorstep, and they raised her.  Now she’s pregnant, and the father is gone, working on the ships.  Nick is trying to marry her off to a much older man, Mr. Perry (Signey Kean) for which he might get paid.  At the same time, Nick is having a fling with one of the boarders Mrs. Neilsen (Rachel John), and the two of them dream of better days.  Also staying at the house is the Burke family:  the bitter father (David Ganly), his unhappy wife (Anna-Jane Casey) and their intellectually challenged adult son Elias (Steffan Harri). The parents are haunted by a secret they must keep.  Two others join the group, a Black former boxer Joe Scott (Shaq Taylor) and Bible salesman/swindler Rev. Marlowe (Finbar Lynch).  Dr. Walker (Ferdy Roberts) supplies questionable prescription drugs and acts as narrator, filling in bits of each sad story.  The boarding house is on the brink of bankruptcy.  Each character’s tale contributes to the hopeless collective struggle for existence.

Yet somehow Bob Dylan’s poignant songs weave their way through the misery.  “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?)”  is a heartbreaking message sung beautifully by Obianyo.  Brayben gives an emotional rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone”.  The second act opens with “What Can I Do For You?” fitting perfectly in the Depression era story. Casey sings “Sweetheart Like You”, while playing a drum kit parked in the front corner of the stage.  “Hurricane” is especially meaningful when we learn that Joe Scott was wrongfully incarcerated.  Harri sings a lively “Duquesne Whistle” sounding much like a hand-clapping evangelical revival.

Credit goes to movement director Lucy Hind for the eye-catching action on stage.  There is no actual choreography, yet when the singers join together for what appears to be an old-time radio broadcast at the old microphones, their moves are captivating.

The beautiful voices in Girl from the North Country are lifting Bob Dylan’s songs to new heights and attracting a new audience.  The story may also be educating a new generation about the difficult times of the 1930s.  We are reminded that a disastrous economy destroys families and relationships in this moving musical.

Girl from the North Country continues with eight shows a week at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W., Toronto, Ontario until November 24.  Call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.

Photo: Katie Brayben as Elizabeth Laine and Shaq Taylor as Joe Scott.  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Girl from the North Country
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Musical Direction by Ian Ross
Movement Direction by Lucy Hind
Performed by Colin Bates, Katie Brayben, Anna-Jane Csey, David Granly, Steffan Harri, Rachel John, Sidney Kean, Finbar Lynch, Donald Sage Mackay, Gloria Obianyo, Ferdy Roberts, Gemma Sutton, Shaq Taylor, et al.
Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
September 28 to November 24, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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