A word of warning to anyone heading to the Public Theater in hopes of seeing a jukebox musical: Girl From the North Country bears little resemblance to that familiar animal, at least in spirit. True, this latest outing by Conor McPherson features songs by Bob Dylan, whose managers approached the Irish playwright, known for his spellbinding accounts of lost and haunted souls, among them The Weir and The Seafarer. Presumably, Team Dylan didn’t have Jersey Boys in mind.
In fact, Girl, which McPherson also directs—as he did in London, where the work premiered last year—isn’t a musical in any conventional sense, in that the songs don’t so much propel the story as reflect on the themes contained in it. Be warned again that this is dark stuff: Set in in a boarding house in Depression-era Duluth, Minnesota –that is, in Dylan’s home town, shortly before his birth (in 1941)—Girl follows its luckless proprietor, Nick (Stephen Bogardus, in a performance of slow-burning anguish), his troubled family, and the various folks who stumble into their establishment, seeking refuge from all manner of horror and despair.
They are running, in some cases, from the beasts of commerce: the bankers ready to foreclose on Nick, for instance, or the lawyers bleeding one widowed visitor dry as they hold her late husband’s will in probate. Even in hard times, we’re reminded (as we’ve been again, repeatedly, over the past decade) there are haves eager and willing to prey on the have-nots. One Reverend James Marlowe, played with cannily contained venom by the excellent David Pittu, is immediately pegged as a “bible salesman,” and proves himself far worse when he tries to blackmail the broken father of a mentally challenged man.
If McPherson’s characters shall not be released from their suffering, the playwright allows them, and us, deliverance through Dylan’s music—gloriously arranged by Simon Hale, whose orchestrations embrace Dylan’s folk and blues roots while providing soulful showcases for singers of, frankly, much greater prowess. Cast members join the musicians on stage, shaking tambourines and other percussion instruments (a few have turns at the drum set) during production numbers that can blossom from drunken gatherings or just spring up, with shattering grace, at the most harrowing and even tragic moments.
“Like A Rolling Stone,” as led by Mare Winningham—heartbreaking as Nick’s wife, Elizabeth, whose failing mind still allows her to recognize and spit out nasty truths—becomes a defiant anthem of survival. Rousing the company into the less well-known “Duquesne Whistle,” from Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest, Todd Almond—cast as Elias Burke, the disabled, doomed young man whose father is targeted by the reverend—raises his honeyed voice with ironic exuberance.
As Nick and Elizabeth’s own tormented, self-destructive son, Gene, Colton Ryan mines the desperate longing in “I Want You,” while “Slow Train” is sung, majestically, by Sydney James Harcourt, cast as a gifted boxer undone by racism, another prominent demon in Girl. For “Idiot Wind,” Harcourt is joined by an equally forceful Kimber Sprawl, as Marianne, the young black woman who is Gene’s adopted sister; Luba Mason and Marc Kudisch, playing Elias’s parents, team on a darkly tender “Is Your Love In Vain?” after their characters are wrenched from their bitter clashing.
McPherson’s wit also mitigates the bleakness, which is reinforced by Rae Smith’s stark set design, with its looming black-and-white images of river and sky, stretching forward with no promise of shelter ahead. As Dr. Walker, Girl’s occasional narrator, a folksy Robert Joy delivers flashes of gentle humor, and even a bit of optimism. Near the end, after Elizabeth, in a burst of eloquence, delivers a brilliant, devastating monologue summing up her interdependent relationship with Nick—and suggesting their plight is more or less shared by all of us—the doctor briefly offers a brighter take on their bond, and that of a younger couple.
Granted, this flash of comfort is mixed in with news of loss—which as the final number, “Forever Young,” reminds us, is one of life’s defining factors. But if Dylan recognized youth as fleeting, he also extolled its virtues—truth, courage, hope—with as much urgency as irony. His and McPherson’s shared ability to find beauty in longing alone make Girl From the North Country transporting and transcendent.
Girl from the North Country opened October 1, 2018, at the Public Theater and runs through December 23. Tickets and information: publictheater.org