REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★
Last year, Bob Dylan’s music career turned 60. The US singer-songwriter’s indelible impact on popular music is beyond question. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and five of his songs have been listed as among the top 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. He’s sold more than 100 million albums, won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and more than 10 Grammy Awards, as well as a Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, according to the Swedish Academy.
Irish playwright and screenwriter Conor McPherson took a collection of Dylan’s songs and created a musical around those tracks, entitled Girl from the North Country (sharing its title with a track from Dylan’s 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan). Having already played to UK and North American audiences and received a critically positive reception, McPherson’s piece has just arrived at Theatre Royal Sydney, where it’s making its Australian premiere as part of the 2022 Sydney Festival (seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne will follow).
Girl from the North Country is set in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, during the Great Depression. The story centres on the events of a guesthouse that has seen better days, and is owned by Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz) and his family. The bank has threatened to foreclose on the guesthouse, and each member of the family is dealing with their own turmoil. Nick’s wife, Elizabeth (McCune) is in a seemingly advanced stage of dementia; their son, Gene (James Smith) wants to be a writer but struggles with alcoholism; and their adopted African American daughter, Marianne (Zahra Newman), is pregnant but the child’s father is out of the picture.
We’re introduced to several other characters staying at the guesthouse, all of whom are facing their own challenges. These characters include Joe Scott (Callum Francis), an African American boxer who has recently been released from prison and is trying to establish a new life. There’s also Mr and Mrs Burke (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore) who lost their money in the stock market crash, and whose adult son, Elias (Blake Erickson), is mentally a child. And then there’s Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill), a widow who hopes that an inheritance will bring with it a better life. The show is narrated by Dr Walker (Terence Crawford), the Laine family’s doctor.
There are no easy answers for any of the characters; their lives are difficult, and the outlook is bleak. But unlike most good musicals, McPherson’s narrative does not use the song lyrics to drive these stories forward. The characters tell stories through these songs, perhaps giving deeper character glimpses and outwardly expressing otherwise unspoken fragments of thoughts, but connections between preceding scenes of dialogue and the numbers are not obvious. And, somehow, it all works.
McPherson’s text paired together with 20 songs from Dylan’s back catalogue (beautifully arranged by Simon Hale) makes for a beguiling and genuinely affecting theatrical experience. There are many characters and individual stories included over the show’s two-and-a-half hours, and while many of these stories may be foregrounded for only a fleeting moment, McPherson ultimately succeeds in moving us to care about this community. Their despondency, their dejection and their loneliness are palpable. The music emotionally contributes to the overall narrative in the absence of an easily discernible link. The piece (directed in Australia by Kate Budgen) builds to a moving conclusion that leaves us to reflect on the immense power of human resilience.
Critical to the Australian production’s success is its first-class ensemble cast. Kowitz is sympathetic as Nick Laine, the guesthouse proprietor at his wit’s end, while McCune is excellent in her portrayal of Elizabeth, tragically far progressed in her decline. She provides one of the show’s standout vocal performances with Dylan’s 1965 classic ‘Like a rolling stone’.
Newman has too little stage time as Marianne but makes her mark early in Act I, with her delivery of a stunningly reimagined version of 1985’s ‘Tight connection to my heart’ (taking the up-tempo number and turning it into a lush ballad). Francis, meanwhile, showcases his impressive tenor on one of the production’s more recognisable cuts, ‘Hurricane’. He’s well cast as the boxer striving to move forward after being the subject of a terrible miscarriage of justice. And among the terrific cast, O’Neill’s portrayal of Mrs Nielsen makes hers one of the most memorable performances of the night.
Musical Director Andrew Ross leads a four-piece band that gives us rich reproductions of all of the reworked Dylan tracks, and they’re sometimes assisted by some of the cast members throughout.
Rae Smith’s sets and costumes take us back to Minnesota in the 1930s and aptly evoke a town (and township) that has come face to face with the economic and social cost of the times. Mark Henderson’s lighting never betrays that aesthetic, only adding to the sense of bleakness.
Dylan fans attending should note that unlike most jukebox musicals, Girl from the North Country draws its setlist from tracks extending far beyond the greatest hits. In fact, Dylan aficionados may actually be impressed by how wide McPherson has cast the net in his song selection.
Whether you’re a Dylan fan or not, Girl from the North Country is a wonderful piece that offers a musical theatre experience genuinely unlike anything else you will see in Sydney this year.
Photo credit: Daniel Boud
Girl from the North Country plays Theatre Royal Sydney until 27 February 2022. It will open at Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on 25 March and then at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre on April 29.
For more information (including how to purchase tickets), visit www.northcountry.com.au.