Tony Award-Winning “Girl From The North Country” Is An Unconventional Bob Dylan Musical

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Ironically, an American musical, Girl From The North Country, premiered in 2017 at the Old Vic in London to rave reviews and a double Olivier Award win. The story is set in the winter of 1934 on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, during the throes of the Great Depression. It finally crossed the pond to an Off-Broadway opening at New York’s The Public Theater in 2018. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It won Best Orchestration. Girl from the North Country was also the sole Broadway musical nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. The musical features nineteen of Bob Dylan’s back catalog songs, some popular and others lesser known, including “Girl From The North Country.” Folk singer and songwriter Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman of Lithuanian/Ukrainian Jewish heritage in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941. He won the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature prize for his poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

Girl From The North Country Cast

Critically acclaimed contemporary Irish playwright, screenwriter, and director Conor McPherson wrote the book and directed the richly textured multi-layered drama Girl From The North Country. McPherson skillfully blends the Bob Dylan songs with his characters’ emotions and struggles. Music allows them to express themselves despite their travails. This production is a masterpiece where lyricism, literature, and drama perfectly intersect. There are reminiscences of Steinbeck’s Mice and Men, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Eugene O’Neill’s stylings in this unconventional musical that features Simon Hale’s Tony Award-winning orchestrations. You will hear Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Forever Young,” Hurricane,” and Slow Train Coming” performed as never before. Cast members perform the songs on stage using vintage instruments such as keyboards, drums, shakers, violins, tambourines, guitars, harmonica, and bass from the 1930s Depression era. The musicians’ expertise and talents are impressive.

Sharaé Moultrie

The story revolves around Nick Laine’s (John Schiappa) Boarding House. He is the proprietor of this failing venture he desperately wants to save from foreclosure. He is also the caretaker of his wife, Elizabeth Laine (Jennifer Blood). She suffers from an agitated form of dementia. Amazingly, despite her affliction she is the character who has the most insight emotionally to what is going on. Nick is also romantically involved with the widow, Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods). Nick’s son Gene (Ben Biggers) is an alcoholic traveling nowhere in life. Gene wishes he was a writer. He is incapable of holding onto a steady job. He loses his girlfriend, Kate Draper (Chiara Trentalange), to a more promising prospect. She has a rich resonant voice. Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie), left behind by a former tenant as a baby, is Nick’s nineteen-year-old Black adopted daughter. She is unmarried and five months pregnant. Her angelic, captivating singing reflects the kindness in her demeanor. Nick Laine is attempting to provide for her by marrying her off to an old creepy but solvent shoemaker, Mr. Perry, well played by (Jay Russell).

Chiara Trentalange and Ben Biggers

There is more soap opera-esque conflict to come. A host of disparate characters have made bad life choices, while others have had tragedy thrust upon them. They drift in and out of the lodging house, haunting this drama with secrets and pathetic backstories. Mr. Burke (David Benoit) once wealthy who lost everything in the stockmarket crash and his wife Mrs. Burke (Jill Van Velzer) share a dark disturbing secret concerning their adult mentally disabled son Elias Burke (Aidan Wharton).

Ben Biggers, Sharaé Moultrie, Jennifer Blood, John Schiappa

Reminding me of Garrison Keilor and his Lake Wobegon Tales, McPherson uses Dr. Walker (Alan Ariano), a witness to birth, life, and death) to narrate the stories. Ariano has a perfect radio voice. Unfortunately, the doctor suffers from the demons of a morphine addiction. Amid a late-night storm, Reverend Marlowe, a fundamentalist Elmer Gantry-type oily preacher (Jeremy Webb), and Joe Scott (Matt Manuel), a boxer with a dark past, arrive seeking shelter. Manuel has a charming, poignant, melodious vocal style. The arrival of Scott and the Reverend creates a new dynamic. Joe Scott mirrors the actual life of legendary Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former middleweight Black boxer falsely convicted of a triple murder and sentenced to life in prison. Dylan co-wrote the “Hurricane” song with Jacques Levy, railing against a corrupt justice system and racial discrimination after he read The Sixteenth Round by prisoner Carter. My favorite numbers were the Hurricane performance and the good ol’ fashioned community hootenanny. Despite the sadness of these character portrayals, McPherson’s dialogue provides many moments that engage the audience in laughter and levity. Ultimately, survival, hopefulness, and resilience of the human spirit triumph.

Sharaé Moultrie and Matt Manuel

Rae Smith’s stark but mood-appropriate scenic design matches the Depression-era guest house. Her costume design is also mood-enhancing. The lighting design by Mark Henderson is stunning. I especially loved the shadows and silhouettes he created. Sound design by Simon Baker creates the right emotional impact for this drama. Movement direction by Lucy Hind conveys the characters’ personalities exquisitely. Timothy Splain’s music direction is superb. The songs and harmonies are evocative and ethereal and showcase the tremendous talents of the ensemble. It was reported in the New York Times that Dylan said, “The play had me crying at the end. I can’t even say why,” he said. “When the curtain came down, I was stunned. I really was. He says, “Too bad Broadway shut down because I wanted to see it again.” The magnificent cast and musicians received a well-deserved resounding standing ovation on opening night.

Aidan Wharton

Tickets may be purchased online or at Broadway in Chicago Box Offices. Ticket prices range from $35-$129, with a select number of premium tickets available. Visit Broadway on Chicago’s Accessibility Page for sign interpretation, audio description, open caption, and sensory-friendly performance dates. CIBC Theatre is at 18 West Monroe Street, Chicago, IL 60603. Parking is available at 17 East Adams Street.

Photos: Provided by Broadway in Chicago

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