Review by Suzanne Tate
Girl from the North Country is not the usual brand of musical that comes to Melbourne. Not a big budget blockbuster, anticipated for months or years in advance. No bright, elegant costumes, no happy ending. In fact, in many ways, it doesn’t really feel like a musical at all… more like a serious play, with dramatic, wonderful musical interludes. The music doesn’t relate directly to the story (or rarely) and it certainly doesn’t sound like any normal musical theatre. The iconic Music and Lyrics of Bob Dylan are woven throughout Girl from the North Country, Written and Directed by Conor McPherson. But this isn’t just a show for fans of Bob Dylan. In fact, die-hard fans may possibly not like the creative license taken (with Dylan’s full blessing), with the music at times taken far from its folk song heritage. This show isn’t just a night of light entertainment. The story isn’t uplifting, or happy. You wont leave with a smile on your face or singing the reprise of the signature number. Girl from the North Country is in many ways a challenging piece of theatre. The story is dark and disjointed, with multiple tragedies unfolding as the characters collide at a boarding house in the winter of 1934, during the Great Depression. But while it isn’t happy, it is engrossing. And the music…well, that is intriguing.
The story takes place in Duluth, Minnesota, the birthplace of Bob Dylan. So much pain, as we unravel the threads of each character as they come together, all in dire circumstances, and interacting as some kind of large dysfunctional extended family, even though they really don’t know each other at all. Even the central family, the boarding house owner Nick Laine played by Peter Kowitz, his wife Elizabeth, portrayed by Lisa McCune, their son Gene (James Smith) and adopted daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) don’t really know each other. McCune was almost unrecognisable as the unstable Elizabeth, whose erratic behaviour from moment to moment is a constant surprise to the family trying to care for her. McCune played her with a masterful breadth of acting, from the paranoid terror of her dementia to her confronting honesty and joyful abandon as she danced unashamedly. And with amazingly powerful and moving vocals. Nick has his own secrets and seems to know little of the lives or dreams of his two children. The one character who does not sing, Nick has no light moments in his story.
The boarding house guests all have their own concerns and mysteries. Mr (Greg Stone) and Mrs (Helen Dallimore) Burke, and their adult, childlike son Elias (Blake Erickson), who may be running from a terrible act. Dr Walker (Terence Crawford), the occasional narrator who has his own skeletons in the closet and Mrs Neilsen, stoic, but passionate in song, as she watches the man she illicitly loves lose all hope as he cares for his ailing wife and waits for the bank to foreclose on his home. Finally, the new arrivals to the boarding house, Joe Scott (Elijah Williams) and Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro), neither of whom are entirely who they claim to be. The entire cast’s performance was strong, drawing us into their dark world filled with tragedy and tension, but then lighting it up with beautiful music. Solos, duets, group harmony and finally, acapella. The music too, is challenging. Not always the expected, comfortable harmonies often found in a musical (unless it’s Sondheim) but notes where it sounds like they might not be quite on pitch… but you are 99% sure it is sung as intended. Not a consistent genre; sometimes the music brings a gospel, spiritual feeling, at other times country. And even if you aren’t a Dylan fan (which I am not) always an underlying familiarity in the music, because his music is, after all, iconic.
From the perspective of the story, the ensemble often felt unnecessary. The action occurred within a private space, in the boarding house, so extra bodies often felt out of place, and the stage crowded. But they came onstage only during the music, and musically their voices were used to great effect. Visually also, as the stage direction and choreography, combined with the dramatic lighting, was also very effective. Dramatic silhouettes against a glowing blue wall of the guest house, or in front of the dramatic landscape of Lake Superior projected on the back wall, were visually striking.
The show opened with an empty stage, except for the band’s instruments scattered across the stage. The musicians entered while the house lights were up, and played one song before the lights came down, and the rest of the set appeared. They remained on stage throughout the show. The set consisted of various vintage furniture pieces, and a range of skrims with photographically accurate images of various internal and external views of the boarding house. They flew in and out at the change of scene, and in the way of skrims, could become invisible with the change of light in a moment, and were used to great effect. The lighting and use of the projected imagery was detailed and versatile. We saw darkness fall over the lake, and the sun rise, through the brightness of the projected imagery. When the projection expanded to fill the stage, we could feel the chill of winter by the lake, and the desolation of both the season and the lives of the characters in the story that was unfolding. Darkness would fall over the stage to highlight a soloist, or duet at the microphones, drawing us away from the dismal environment to a much brighter place. Dylan’s music, in itself known as often confusing and undefined, provided a rich, beautiful departure from the darkness and depression of this world. It lifted us up, and provided hope and comfort, for both the audience, and the characters. As they took turns taking to the vintage microphones they projected their anger, love, fear and longing, and it was beautiful.
The audience was equally impressed, moved and at times confused by Girl from the North. It is a show that will stay in the audience’s memory, and reflection may bring new revelations. McPherson has made the most of the poetic nature of Dylan’s lyrics, that can be made relevant to so many stories through their very abstraction. The story he has told may also bring Dylan’s music to a new audience.
For more information and tickets: https://www.northcountry.com.au/