Review: 'Girl From the North Country' blows into the Pantages on a Bob Dylan wind


“Girl From the North Country” doesn’t behave like a traditional book musical. The sooner you accept the strangeness, the sooner you’ll be able to appreciate the offbeat lyricism.

It makes sense that this show, which opened at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre on Wednesday, would wander down its own path, unbothered by expectations. (The show had a respectable run on Broadway, where it was Tony-nominated for best musical, among other categories, and won for best orchestrations.)

The score comes from the music catalog of Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of rock whose independent songwriting earned him the Nobel Prize in literature. And the book is by Conor McPherson, an Irish playwright who has fiercely captured the uncanny dimension of the struggles of ordinary folks in such plays as “The Weir,” “The Seafarer” and “Shining City.”

McPherson, who is both writer and director on the production, was given Dylan’s blessing to incorporate songs as he saw fit. The result is a far cry from the standard jukebox musical in which it’s sometimes possible to hear a cash register ka-ching as a mega-hit is trotted out. It’s also quite a different experience from “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” Twyla Tharp‘s dance-musical homage to Dylan.

“Girl From the North Country” conjures into existence a complicated fictional universe. The setting of McPherson’s play is a flophouse in Depression-era Duluth, Minn., the port city where Dylan was born in 1941. And the cast of characters, each with a knotty backstory, creates a tapestry of narratives that can only be glimpsed in passing.

Nick Laine (John Schiappa) owns and runs this derelict rooming house, which is facing foreclosure. He lives there with his wife, Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood), who has a mental disorder that fluctuates between stark lunacy and the most penetrating perception. Helping out as far as they are able and willing are their grown children: Gene (Ben Biggers), a young would-be writer whose start in life is being upended by the bottle, and Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie), Nick and Elizabeth’s adopted Black daughter, who is mysteriously pregnant.

The misery of this family is part of the general misery of a nation in pain. The other characters — longer-term boarders, temporary guests and regular visitors — flesh out the portrait of an America in deep financial distress.

Mrs. Neilsen (an electrifying Carla Woods), a resident of the house who’s carrying on a not-so-discreet affair with Nick, is waiting for the payout from her late husband’s will. Mr. Burke (David Benoit), another resident, pontificates on subjects he knows little about, as he and his long-suffering wife, Mrs. Burke (Jill Van Velzer), try to corral their developmentally challenged son, Elias (Aidan Wharton), from inflicting harm with his brute strength.

Two new guests appear in the dead of night, Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb), an unholy roller with a feral mien, and Joe Scott (a dazzling Matt Manuel), a boxer in apparent fugitive flight who takes an interest in Marianne despite her difficult situation. Also on hand are Dr. Walker (Alan Ariano), a friend of the household, who serves as occasional narrator, and Mr. Perry (Jay Russell), a lecherous old shoemaker who Nick hopes will rescue Marianne from the obloquy of unwed motherhood (even if it means ushering her into the hell of an unwanted common-law marriage).

The book is unwieldy and far too complicated for a musical that shifts gears into songs that have their own lyrical intricacy. The numbers are staged in a manner that’s more or less independent from the fictional dilemmas giving rise to them.

Sometimes the performers croon before a standing microphone. Other times they assemble in the style of a gospel chorus. “I Want You” is one of the exceptions, coming at a time when Gene and his ex-girlfriend Kate (Chiara Trentalange) are acknowledging in song what they are doing a shabby job of hiding in their cool goodbye. (Biggers and Trentalange make the most of their number.)

When Blood performs a galvanizing version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” she allows Elizabeth to express in twisting movements and vocal cries all that she cannot communicate in her life. “Blowin’ in the Wind” isn’t in the show, but “Hurricane,” “Idiot Wind” and “Duquesne Whistle” gust across the stage with the unstoppable fury of time.

“Girl From the North Country” doesn’t make it easy for an audience to feel settled. The scope of the book rivals one of Eugene O’Neill’s lower-depths dramas. And McPherson’s approach is curiously oblique and elliptical. I was reminded of the unorthodox style of Jane Bowles’ “In a Summer House,” a play I’m fond of but one you probably haven’t seen for reasons of cogency and coherence.

The storytelling, the songs and the staging often seem at odds in “Girl From the North Country.” McPherson seems almost perversely determined to stay miles ahead of his audience. It can be frustrating trying to catch up, but there are haunting moments if you can relax into a scattershot plot that casually builds toward a Thanksgiving banquet of melodramatic confrontations and fateful turning points.

The quality of the singing — phenomenal across the board — goes a long way toward captivating theatergoers. The acting, which can get overly broad, is more variable. Yet the singing is most powerful when it bursts forth organically from the characters, even if what is sung has only a murky relationship to the dramatic moment.

Just as Blood’s Elizabeth releases in song all that she cannot convey in speech, Wharton’s Elias gives vent in soaring lyrics to what he hasn’t the mental ability to put into words. Woods’ Mrs. Neilsen commands an awesome security when singing that is cruelly absent in her day-to-day existence. And Moultrie’s Marianne and Manuel’s Joe figure out how to reach each other musically even as they find themselves often at an impasse in conversation.

The stage frames a sepia portrait of forgotten lives captured at a point before everything is altered for good. (Rae Smith’s scenic and costume design and Mark Henderson’s lighting draw out the vintage effect.)

There’s a mournful quality to “Girl From the North Country” that is comforting in its twilight beauty even if the vision isn’t particularly consoling. While keeping a respectful artistic distance from Dylan, the musical approaches his meditative essence and pays tribute to his singular genius.



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