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Bob Dylan Goes Off-Broadway in Girl From the North Country

The Public Theater presents the North American premiere of Conor McPherson's dark musical play.

Jeannette Bayardelle stars in Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan's Girl From the North Country, directed by McPherson, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

The cast of Girl From the North Country seems to apparate onto the stage of the Public's Newman Theater. So does Rae Smith's set, which appears as an empty stage at the top, but arrives with magnificent fullness in the time it takes to sing the opening number. We suspect that it could all disappear as quickly as it came — which is about right for this new musical set during the Great Depression (and, fair warning, it is indeed depressing).

Girl From the North Country is an extraordinary musical, unlike any currently playing in New York. First produced last year at London's Old Vic, it is the creation of writer-director Conor McPherson (The Seafarer). He uses the music of 2016 Nobel laureate Bob Dylan to tell a story of life on the edge of ruin, when any moment could land our characters out in the cold.

Mare Winningham plays Elizabeth, and Stephen Bogardus plays Nick in Girl From the North Country.
(© Joan Marcus)

And that is a serious threat in Duluth, Minnesota, circa 1934. The story takes place in the boarding house owned by Nick (Stephen Bogardus) and Elizabeth Laine (Mare Winningham). Elizabeth suffers from early-onset dementia, so Nick mostly runs the house with the help of their daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl). Their drunk son (Colton Ryan) is no help at all. Nick is also carrying on an affair with a guest named Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle). They dream of opening a hotel together with the money she's set to receive from her late husband's estate. And since the boarding house is on the brink of foreclosure, that couldn't come soon enough.

Before that happens, Nick plans to marry Marianne off to an elderly shoemaker (Tom Nelis). But Marianne soon catches the eye of Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), a prizefighter just out of prison. The Burkes (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason) and their mentally challenged adult son (Todd Almond) are also guests in the house. They have a terrible secret that an unscrupulous traveling Bible salesman (David Pittu), another guest in the boarding house, threatens to expose. Everyone is just trying to stay alive, living on the fumes of former glories and praying for a windfall in an uncertain future.

Kimber Sprawl plays Marianne, and Sydney James Harcourt plays Joe in Girl From the North Country.
(© Joan Marcus)

Hunger rumbles off the stage in McPherson's urgently staged production, with earthy, emotionally raw performances from the entire cast. Harcourt is particularly compelling as Joe, a stoic who comes alive in a roof-scorching rendition of "Slow Train." The incomparable Mare Winningham serves as the voice of the audience in her not-as-senile-as-you-think portrayal of Elizabeth, saying the things we're all thinking. Because her connection with the audience is so strong, Winningham's delivery of "Like a Rolling Stone'' feels especially personal. She reaches out to us and asks us to consider how it would feel to live without any options — a situation that, for a lot of Americans in 2018, is just called "life."

Rather than propelling the story forward, the songs offer us an opportunity to marinate in the emotional moment, which might not appeal to musical theater purists. But music can do a lot of things onstage, including offering us time to breathe and truly think about what we're seeing. By incorporating its big, contemplative set pieces into a difficult, complicated story of American life, Girl From the North Country draws on the deeper traditions of opera and American folk music to create something that feels avant-garde by the current standards of Broadway.

Much of that has to do with McPherson's fluid staging and Lucy Hind's subtly resonant movement, which physically shows us lives in flux. Rae Smith's set of shifting flats and glowing backdrops of open road seems forever in motion. Smith's muted costumes evoke the sepia photos of a bygone era, especially under Mark Henderson's warm, incandescent lighting. Backup singers appear as silhouettes as our characters move in and out of the light, giving everything the feeling of a dream.

The cast of Girl from the North Country sings around an upright piano during one of the many group scenes.
(© Joan Marcus)

In addition to reinforcing this semi-surreal tone with the faint howl of the wind, Simon Baker's sound design is pristinely calibrated so that we don't miss a single syllable of Dylan's indelible lyrics. Simon Hale's smart arrangements tailor the songs not just to the show, but to the singer. Hale's orchestrations offer a surprisingly rich sound for a four-person band, which is regularly augmented by members of the cast wielding a variety of percussion instruments.

There's no discernable border between cast and band, with actors becoming musicians and musicians milling through the group scenes. It all gives the impression of a big, theatrical jam session — an event that treats Dylan's music as something to be shared by everyone, especially when there is little else to share.