Melbourne is offering a smorgasbord of musicals at the moment and currently on at the Comedy Theatre is the little mentioned Girl From The North Country. We managed $35 rush tickets on June 7 and were seated in the second row in an almost half full theatre (granted, though, it was its final week, and also a Tuesday, which may or may not have had something to do with it).
Apart from knowing the musical featured the works of Bob Dylan and the poster itself, I assumed, based on the poster, that it would be about Lisa McCune – perhaps a free spirit or hippie of kinds – in the 1970s who rediscovers herself and her thirst for life through the love of music after some kind of hardship. How wrong I was. It’s set during the Great Depression (the 1930s) which, to quote Macaulay Culkin (in Red Letter Media’s Junka 2 video), sounds like a fucking blast, doesn’t it?
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, Girl From The North Country made its debut at The Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017. Later transferring to London’s West End before its off-Broadway premiere in 2018 and Broadway in 2020 (and resumed in 2021 after COVID delays).
It was nominated for five Laurence Olivier Awards in 2018 (including two wins). It later received 7 Tony Award nominations in 2022, with the ‘Best Orchestrations’ Award presented to Simon Hale.
Girl From The North Country captures a short moment in time. The story focuses on the Laine family – Nick (Peter Kowitz), his wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune), son Gene (James Smith) and pregnant adopted daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) – who run a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota.
Other residents of the guest house include the Burke family – Mr. Burke (Greg Stone), his wife (Helen Dallimore) and their disabled son Elias (Blake Erickson) – and Mrs. Neilsen (Christina O’Neill).
Then, Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro) and boxer Joe Scott (Elijah Williams) arrive looking for shelter. The arrival of these characters is a catalyst, changing everything for everyone in the house.
The story is narrated by Dr. Walker (Terence Crawford), physician to the Laine family. Crawford’s deep baritone voice is perfect for this period piece – like you’d hear on an old-time radio.
When McPherson was asked by the producers to write a four-sentence pitch, for a story and setting, to be delivered for Dylan’s approval, he described “a depression-era boarding house in a US city in the 1930s with a loose family of thrown-together drifters, ne’er do wells and poor romantics striving for love and understanding as they forage about their deadbeat lives.”
“We could,” he added, “have old lovers, young lovers, betrayers, and idealists rubbing along against each other. And at the heart of it all, these songs that emerge out of the folk tradition and lead the way into something more individually expressive and timeless.”
The musical features nineteen Dylan songs performed by the cast throughout the production, each backed by instruments from the 1930s. The soundtrack includes some of Dylan’s most recognisable tunes including Make You Feel My Love, Hurricane, Like A Rolling Stone etc.
Jukebox musicals are hit and miss at the best of times (to put it simply, the musical is written to fit the songs and not the other way around). When unfamiliar with the songs (and not fully relying on nostalgia ala Cruel Intentions, Moulin Rouge etc), it usually goes one of two ways – 1. The songs elevate the material, perfectly fitting the character, plot and/or situation or 2. The songs kind of work at times but often the lyrics feel forced and clunky and not 100% relevant to the character. Granted, this is a me problem, and those familiar with the works of Dylan may enjoy it more.
I left the theatre feeling depressed and with more questions than anything else…
- Did Mr. Burke murder his son or was it an accident?
- Who was the father of Marianne’s baby?
- Why was Marianne so afraid of Dr. Walker?
- And many, many more.
Several of the storylines felt incomplete or abandoned. That is in essence with the musical being truer to life than your typical musical, but it didn’t work for me. I go to the theatre for escapism, not to wallow in the misery of real life – especially considering the nightmare of the past two years.
Still, I will give credit where credit is due, the full company of 18 are wonderful – not to mention – the harmonies alone are glorious. My toes were tapping at times. Erickson’s solo performance of Duquesne Whistle was breathtaking – a true showstopper in every sense of the word. My other favourites were Theys, Williams and Peter Carroll as Mr. Perry. Also, who knew McCune, a highly respected award-winning actress, had such a powerful vocal range to execute a song with as much light and shade. Not to mention throwing herself into a role that requires full commitment to exploring all the ugly sides of the humanity and illness as the untethered Elizabeth.
Considering the scope of the Comedy Theatre stage, the production design is minimal but well thought out. The almost melancholy lighting adds an element of darkness and misery, as Mark Henderson’s excellent use of shadows and muted sepia tones mirror the period feel.
Girl From The North Country is a serious, slow-burn adult musical that didn’t work for me, but I suspect I’m not the target audience as has received an overwhelming number of positive reviews. It’s a technically slick production though, so, take my words as you will. In saying that, during the interval, I overheard a young man commenting on the fact that none of the characters are particularly likable, so he wasn’t yet drawn in. And, once the show ended, speaking to a middle-aged woman in the line for the bathroom, she too was unsure how she felt about the production overall. Although we both agreed Act II was better.
Unlike SIX which takes the dark period of history the musical is based on and transforms it into an empowering pop concert, Girl From The North Country haunts and wallows in every restless, sad, bent, and broken moment. Those looking for something more upbeat, stay far, far away!
Girl From The North Country heads to Auckland from July 1, Wellington from July 21, Canberra from August 25, and Brisbane from September 8.
For more information and ticket details, head to Girl From The North Country Australia