Girl from the North Country review – musical jukebox Bob Dylan sings with a stellar cast | Sydney Party 2022
Girl from the North Country is set in the lakeside harbor of Duluth, Minnesota. But the sign could just as well say: “Welcome to McPherson Country”.
Conor McPherson, that is: the Irish playwright, screenwriter and director whose piquant dramas (The Weir, The Seafarer and The Night Alive among them) thrilled viewers with their tribulations of the lonely, the defeated, the which failed to launch and those which crashed.
There is often a touch of magic in the air in a McPherson room, a hazy bridge to old myths, and so it is with this musical jukebox, which McPherson has shaped around a selection of songs written by Duluth’s most famous son, Bob Dylan. Its scale may be larger than its plays (a 19-person cast plus a live band), but it is imbued with those same characteristics.
The year is 1934. The Great Depression is reaching its peak. The light slowly rises inside a dilapidated boarding house. Once a grand merchant-class house, it is now a last-ditch hotel on the verge of bank foreclosure, a microcosm of the times.
At present, however, it’s a family business, run by Nick Laine (played by Peter Kowitz), a weary but tireless man who watches over a floating population of guests while caring for his mentally unbalanced wife, Elizabeth. (Lisa McCune).
Help comes in the form of Marianne (Zahra Newman), whom Nick and Elizabeth took in as a baby. Hindrance is embodied by Nick’s biological son, Gene (James Smith), an aspiring novelist unable to help himself, let alone others.
The characters and their various misfortunes are stacked higher than Tom Joad’s Hudson. Among the notables are the Burkes (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore), a once-prosperous middle-aged couple on the run with Elias (Blake Erickson), their troublesome and on-and-off dangerous boy-boy. There’s also Mrs. Neilson (Christina O’Neill), a widow who waits for her financial train to arrive – then jumps on it with Nick.
The latest arrivals are Joe (Callum Francis), a freshly paroled convict and boxer, and Marlowe (Grant Piro), a traveling preacher-swindler.
Regular visitors to Nick’s dining table include the former Mr. Perry (Peter Carroll), who put his threadbare cap on Marianne, and Dr. Walker (Terence Crawford), the local doctor who dispenses morphine on demand (mainly to himself, before he became ). Walker also serves as the narrator in what is a memory game with songs.
McPherson draws inspiration from the spectrum of Dylan’s back catalog, numbers stretching back to the title track (from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) to Duquesne Whistle from 2012’s album Tempest.
Due to the lyrical complexity of Dylan’s songs, they tend to work as mood enhancers, with economical arrangements by Simon Hale for piano, violin, guitar and drums. On the rare occasions when they’re used in a more traditional way in a jukebox — to advance character and/or plot, such as when Joe sings Hurricane — it feels oddly clunky.
The numbers sung by an ensemble often take place around old microphones, which are turned on and off as if it were an old-fashioned radio variety hour. When Dr. Walker takes the mic, it’s hard not to remember that fellow Minnesota son Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion.
Directed by resident director Corey McMahon, McPherson’s production is directed sparingly but seductively. Mark Henderson’s eloquent use of low light combines with Rae Smith’s set and costumes to suggest past lives and better times as well as present peril. Furniture and walls are blown away as if by ill winds, amplifying the feeling that this house is too fragile to really be a home.
Early reviews for this production, which opened at the start of the Sydney festival in January, pointed to an under-repetitive and choppy chemistry. Weeks later, production has clearly found its groove. Every moment is rendered with precision and the alchemy is convincing to say the least.
McCune is exceptional as the unattached Elizabeth. Her singing is the musical highlight of this production. Newman and Francis also have superb voices, with the latter performing his numbers with a cool Sam Cook twist. Erickson demonstrates a powerful set of pipes at the end of the play as the tragic Elias finds his voice. And regardless of whether you think the song choice and timing really fit, I Want You, sung by Smith Nick and Elizabeth Hay (who plays Gene’s girlfriend, Katherine) is made to sparkle.
Covid-19 hit Girl from the North Country hard at the Sydney festival. Frightened by Omicron, and perhaps in solidarity with the boycott, audiences were hesitant to come out and experience it. This performance, a Sunday matinee, was performed in front of a 50% house. But the show still manages to reach out with a message that happiness is best captured in the present – however difficult that present is – rather than hoped for on the track.
Girl from the North Country plays at Sydney’s Theater Royal until March 19, before heading to Adelaide and Melbourne.
At the Theater Royal, wearing a mask for patrons over the age of 12 is compulsory, although patrons can remove them when eating and drinking. A reduced number of foyer bars are open and the lines are socially distanced. Double vaccination status is checked at the gate. The show lasts two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission, and takes place in an indoor theater. In accordance with the national regulations in force, the place can accommodate customers at 100% of its capacity