Arts

Review: ‘Girl from the North Country’ Is a Downhome Drama Uplifted by Bob Dylan’s Music

The cast of the North American tour of "Girl from the North Country." Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The first North American tour of Girl from the North Country has made its way to Southern California at the Pantages Theatre, and it wholly captures a simpler, perhaps more beautiful time, but not any more devoid of drama that enfolds a disparate group of characters during the Great Depression — specifically in the winter of 1934 in Duluth, MN. Opposite the struggles, however, is a persistent glimmer of hope presented without frills and unnecessary accoutrements.

Written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and insightful lyrics by the legendary Bob Dylan, Girl from the North Country happens exclusively in an on-the-brink-of-being-foreclosed boarding house, owned by Nick and Elizabeth Laine, the latter of whom suffers from a degenerative mental illness. The two have a biological son, Gene, whose constant inebriation distracts from his joblessness and anxious dreams of being a short-story writer, and an adopted Black daughter, Marianne, who is four-and-a-half-months pregnant out of wedlock. Nick, whose amorous pursuits have turned to resident Mrs. Neilsen, a widow whose wealth to be inherited might offer a way out of financial distress, also introduces the significantly older and relatively well-off Mr. Perry, a shoe-mender, to Marianne.

(L-R) Sharaé Moultrie (foreground) and Carla Woods (background) in the North American tour of Girl from the North Country. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The complexion within the house shifts even further when Reverend Marlowe, an unscrupulous bible salesman and Joe Scott, a pugilist with a mysterious past, move in with the others on a tempestuous night. Thereafter, the arrival of Mr. Burke, a business owner ravaged by the impecunious times, his disillusioned wife, and their mentally disabled son Elias are added to the stew of narrative threads, many of which are punctuated by jaw-dropping renditions of Dylan’s contemplative songs.

Each of the 13 period-dressed principals, some of whom play the antique instruments arrayed on stage, is afforded the opportunity to shine. The folksy ambiance, reinforced by the wood furniture and sometimes amplified by the harrowing uncertainty of what is to come, can be likened to the downhome appeal of Once. With the only present-day reminder being a rear LED backdrop, scenic and costume designer Rae Smith has ensured that we’re in fact viewing this town, and its inhabitants, through a century-old lens; although they’re in technicolor, the mind’s eye is tempted to view them in black and white. Additionally, Mark Henderson’s lighting, which is dim by design to enhance the intimacy, is a refreshing counter to the loud illumination of big productions.

Carla Woods (foreground) in the North American tour of Girl from the North Country. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

As there are no dance numbers like a prototypical musical, movement director Lucy Hind has succeeded in having the performers’ emotive body language — sometimes purposely meticulous, other times frantic — be a natural extension of McPherson’s dialogue. Girl from the North Country makes the impression it does because it functions more like a play that is supplemented by music. Don’t make any mistake about it: Dylan’s numbers put definitive exclamation points on the scenes, but it’s the character development over two-and-a-half hours that ultimately resonates. Still, the poignant execution of 22 of the modern-day Bard’s tunes, sung expressively and sonorously into classic condenser microphones, and taken to a soulful zenith by sublime musicians, is a testament to music director Timothy Splain and orchestrator, arranger, and musical supervisor Simon Hale.

The only question is whether this production, because it is so stripped down in scope, plays as effectively as it does to the backrows of a cavernous theatre like the Pantages as it would to the orchestra. Girl from the North Country might have a greater impact in a smaller venue that is apt to capture everyone’s attention equally as the seemingly private goings-on are played out at a true-to-life and intrinsically mellower pace. And while the show is intently focused on only the brass tacks, transitioning from one sequence to the next without a millisecond delay, it could benefit from planned pauses that would allow the audience to express their appreciation at discrete points for such first-rate cast members.

Matt Manuel in the North American tour of Girl from the North Country. Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Alan Ariano affably portrays Dr. Walker, the narrator who introduces and bookends the unfolding events, though he also has an integral role in caring for Jennifer Blood’s Elizabeth. Blood is spectacular as she presents her character with equal parts catatonia, mania, and periodic lucidity. There is not a single moment, even when she is not speaking, when Blood takes a break; she is always emoting with her face, which tells a fascinating story about Elizabeth’s internalized disturbances and the dismantling of the love once shared with her husband. When she is singing as she does in the supreme showstopper, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Blood demonstrates amazing vocal agility and power.

John Schiappa is the distressed and emotionally closed-off Nick who can be seen wearing an apron around his waist. Schiappa excels at giving scenes the emotional punch they deserve like in arguments with Blood’s Elizabeth and his onstage son, Gene, depicted by Ben Biggers, who sells his self-sabotaging beleaguerment similar to Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. A former flame of Gene’s is Kate Draper, realized by Chiara Trentalange. In an exchange reinforcing their lingering feelings, Biggers and Trentalange poignantly duet “I Want You” — one of the sweeter ditties of the show.

(L-R) Chiara Trentalange and Ben Biggers in the North American tour of Girl from the North Country. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Nick’s relationship with the strong-willed Mrs. Neilsen, and the prospect of the two investing in a hotel together, is an arc that is intriguingly developed throughout. Carla Woods plays Neilsen with sensitivity, class, and a brazenness that threatens to make the persona unlikable — in light of being overly direct in her attraction for Nick in Elizabeth’s helpless presence — but never does.

Another anchor in Girl from the North Country is Marianne whose white parents take care of her, but primarily behind closed doors due to the interracial intolerance of the era. Sharaé Moultrie exudes charm and confidence as the young Black woman who is forced to abide marriage pitches by the middle-aged Mr. Perry, proferred charismatically by Jay Russell, who has an exaggerated drawl and means well despite the horrifying optics. Mr. Perry, whose “too nice” personality shrouds predatorial aims, is nearly redeemed in a heart-baring Act II monologue, thanks to Russell’s passionate articulation.

Chiara Trentalange (foreground) and cast in the North American tour of Girl from the North Country. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The African American Joe Scott, who is mild-mannered despite his predilection for boxing, is played with dignity by Matt Manuel who evinces his robust timbre in “Slow Train” and is, from a romantic standpoint, more Marianne’s type (e.g., Joe teaching Marianne how to punch in a tender sight underscores this). Manuel’s Scott initially arrives with Reverend Marlowe whose dishevelment and impertinence bely his “profession” as a purveyor of bibles. Jeremy Webb deserves high acclaim for giving a layered performance as the idiosyncratic and seedy Marlowe, whose affected cadence lingers in the air like cigarette smoke in a saloon, in a characterization that will sit in one’s consciousness for weeks.

Rounding out the main characters are the Burke family. The overwrought Mr. Burke, a victim of the Depression, is wrought with dedicated and heartfelt delivery by David Benoit. Mrs. Burke, represented by the skilled Jill Van Velzer, hollers with a pleasing twang in “Sweetheart Like You,” and has tired of her husband, instead being drawn to other men. Both Benoit and Van Velzer also impress with their percussive talents, but it is their characters’ son, Elias, who has a reawakening in Act II with “Duquesne Whistle” after being weighed down by his condition and inability to control violent outbursts. Aidan Wharton, who also plays the harmonica, is memorable as Elias despite having limited stage time.

Aidan Wharton and company in the North American tour of Girl from the North Country. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Although it is categorized as a musical, A Girl from the North Country is invigoratingly raw and has the spirit of an ensemble play featuring a collection of characters intertwined with one another during one of the most economically harsh epochs in U.S. history. Individual paths are guided by Dylan’s melodious roadmaps, on which inscriptions of his hopeful lyrics can be found. When it is time to collectively sing, the characters of the company heal together, “Pressing On,” as obstacles are met with courage. The message here is that, although suffering may be a personal battle, comfort and strength are derived through mutual support.

The North American tour of Girl from the North Country runs through Sunday, June 2nd at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit broadwayinhollywood.com.

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