This elegiac portrayal of the lives of a group of people thrown together in a run-down guest house in Minnesota during the depression of 1934 was inspired by the agreement by Bob Dylan to allow access to his entire catalogue of songs for the purpose of creating a musical.
In his program notes for this production, playwright and director, Conor McPherson recounts how, tasked with this opportunity, this guesthouse vision kept recurring as he sifted through more than 40 albums of Dylan’s’ songs in search of inspiration.
Unlike other musicals crafted from existing catalogues of popular composers, McPherson has not shoe-horned Dylan’s songs into a storyline, but instead has used the songs to create mood and question responses to the various predicaments in which the characters find themselves.
Very much an ensemble show with a stellar cast, each of whom portray a particular character, but who also move scenery and props, play musical instruments and form choirs around microphones to sing vocal arrangements which sensitively enhance the singing of the various soloists, as their individual stories unfold.
The show is set up by an introductory precis delivered by Terence Crawford as Dr. Walker, who introduces characters, narrates the show and even explains what eventually happened to various characters when the show ends.
Even so, some of the individual storylines are complicated, and demand concentration particularly when the actors drop character, but remain in costume, to participate as backing singers.
During the musical numbers the cast is often backlit to create atmospheric stage pictures, or remain in full view as scenery flies in and out, occasionally revealing beautiful panoramic sea-views behind them, creating the feeling of an on-going epic saga, rather than a musical.
As Elizabeth Laine, the wife of the owner of the guest house, Nick Laine, Lisa McCune offers a finely observed portrayal as a woman suffering an unspecified mental condition, despite looking more like his daughter than his wife. Her rendition of Forever Young is one of many highlights.
Peter Kowitz is excellent as Nick Laine, himself on the brink of a breakdown brought on by his failure to manage the guest house profitably, his wife and son’s mental conditions, and the fact that no one has taken responsibility for the pregnancy of his adopted black daughter, Marianne, affectingly portrayed by Zahra Newman.
Peter Carroll commands every scene in which he appears as Mr. Perry, the elderly bachelor to whom Laine is trying marry off Marianne, while Callum Francis gives a strong performance as the itinerant boxer, fresh out of jail for a wrongful murder conviction, to whom Marianne is attracted.
Helen Dallimore, as the flirtatious Mrs Burke, Greg Stone as her long-suffering husband, Christina O’Neill as the mysterious Mrs Neilsen, and Grant Piro as the con-man, Reverend Marlowe, all shine among a cast of strong character actors.
Despite its leisurely pace, Girl from the North Country is a show guaranteed to leave its audience musing over its characters long after the curtain has falle, and even for those who may not have previously counted themselves as devotees of Bob Dylan’s songs, the hauntingly beautiful orchestrations and musical arrangements by Simon Hale and Conor McPherson for the twenty two Bob Dylan songs which make up the score for this show, are so superbly interpreted and sensitively performed by the cast, as to be a revelation.
If you’re in a mood for a revelation perhaps Girl from the North Country should be on your “must see” list.
Girl from the North Country
Theatre Royal Sydney, 108 King Street, Sydney
Performance: Saturday 8 January 2022
Season continues to 27 February 2022
Following its Sydney season, Girl from the North Country heads to Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide from 25 March, and the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne from 29 April 2022. For more information, visit: www.northcountry.com.au for details.
Image: Lisa McCune, Peter Carroll and Peter Kowitz star in Girl from the North Country – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Bill Stephens OAM