"Girl From the North Country" - New York City Article
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“Girl From the North Country”
Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan
Written and Directed by Connor McPherson
425 Lafayette St.
Through December 23
Adapting existing songs into a full-fledged narrative is always a tricky business - thus far the only success stories are backstage, behind-the-music bio-shows (like Jersey Boys and Beautiful) or something deliberately frivolous and that doesn’t mind behind just being just plain goofy (Mama Mia, and all it’s permutations). Most of the classic rock-inspired story-shows of the last 20 years were unmitigated disasters (I cringe at the mere mention of Good Vibrations and All Shook Up) but Girl From the North Country, originally produced at London's Old Vic theatre, avoids all these pitfalls. Writer-director Connor McPherson doesn’t use Dylan songs to further the story or delineate character; there’s no female character named “Johanna” for anyone to have visions of, thank God, and no one is referred to as “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “The Mighty Quinn.” Rather, the songs are used to expand upon a mood, and convey the inner worlds of the characters, without being explicitly narrative specific, in this tale of down-and-out townsfolk and transients interacting in a boarding house at the nadir of the Great Depression in Minnesota (Mr. Dylan’s home state).
Musical director Simon Hale’s arrangements are brilliant and highly original, and the decision to use mostly lesser known and later songs by the current Nobel prize winner is commendable. In fact, on the few occasions when one of Dylan’s more iconic songs, such as “Like a Rolling Stone” (at the end of Act 1), it actually briefly throws the audience out of the action, making us think about the song rather than the narrative and the characters. Mr. Dylan’s works are orchestrated and sung in a compelling, highly original style more connected to Gospel and folk than Broadway; Dylan’s “Slow Train” is a funky dance number on his 1979 album, Slow Train Coming, but here it’s a highly spiritual hymn of salvation and redemption. I’d always thought of “Forever Young,” possibly my single favorite Dylan song, as a toast and a salutation, a wedding dance even, but here it’s recast as a song of goodbye.
I found myself repeatedly paying the most attention to two highly-venerated Broadway veterans, Luba Mason and Marc Kudish (playing a married couple with a “feeble-brained” adult son) but the whole cast is excellent, ditto the musicians. The story is desolate and bleak, and hardly the feel-good show of the year, but the combination of the narrative, the performers, and Dylan’s music - all that and a bag of chips - make this a profoundly moving experience.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)