Bob Dylan, according to J. Iovine, “injected the power of language and ideas into music”. And “Girl From The North Country” continues Dylan’s work, by sprinkling the art of storytelling of authentic, mostly sad stories, into a Depression Era setting. It’s a heart-grabbing, touchingly beautiful, vocally perfected piece. It’s going to enchant Dylan’s fans, but also audiences who simply appreciate a slow-burn, quiet story about a small-town community.
I came to see “Girl From The North Country” with no prior knowledge of the play, but also with a big respect for Dylan’s work and compositions. I grew up in a home filled with various kinds of music, and Bob Dylan was definitely one of the names I recognised as just someone who created nice, soothing songs (even before I learned English well enough to understand his lyrics). And I have to admit – if you’re into his music, this performance will be a feast for your ears and senses. With 20 songs performed during 2 acts, and a 4-piece band present on the stage through the performance, this musical is like Dylan’s concert, but on steroids.
Songs are presented in new versions, with surprising musical arrangements and mind-blowing vocal performances. I mean, when Frances McNamee, wearing sunglasses and a pink dress, starts her staggering vocal showcase in “Like a Rolling Stone”, my jaw dropped. My reaction could have been multiplied because of the skilled trick used by the screenwriter/director (Conor McPherson): the strongest vocal performances were hidden and written initially as not-fully-mentally-stable characters.
That’s why when both Elizabeth (McNamee), who suffers from dementia, and Elias (Ross Carswell), struggling with an undefined learning disability, get their solos and come out from their stage-bound shells, their vocals hit the most.
What is “Girl From the North Country” all about? Without going into much detail: the show tells a story of a small town community living in Duluth, Minnesota during the Great Depression. The play follows the lives of the people who work and live in a guesthouse owned by the struggling Burkes family. Each character has their own story of loss, heartbreak, and struggle, including the Burkes family who is on the verge of losing their property. The arrival of two men from out of town sets events in motion that bring the characters’ pasts to light, and force them to confront their present and future with a renewed sense of hope and understanding.
If you’re a fan of musicals portraying the everyday life of a small community in a seemingly boring little town (“Band’s Visit”, “Come From Away”), this show might just hit the spot for you. But beware – just like some of Dylan’s songs, this is not a comedy and not a happy tale in any way. It’s authentic in a way it shows life and especially its downs – but it also ends with a tiny glimmer of hope for the future. You won’t see a “happily ever after” here, but you may shed some tears over the fate of some of the characters for sure. This show is brutal in the way it deals with the audiences’ emotions – so please make sure you read the list of trigger warnings before you book a ticket, as there are some quite major ones included here.
In terms of standout performances, I have to once again mention McNamee, who created an absolutely believable, larger-than-life, energetic character of Elizabeth, together with little quirks that a person in her place could realistically display. Joshua C. Jackson, as the mysterious Joe, brings this thick air of mystery the moment he shows up on stage – and when he sings, he SINGS. I mean, what a fantastic performance.
What brought this play to life for me, was a combination of the stage set: a collection of large, semi-transparent walls that moved up and down, and the lights design, which guided the audience’s attention through sometimes very crowded scenes, and helped to focus.
And also, let me tell you, it’s been a while since I could feel a smell of a real soup that’s been poured into plates during a dinner scene – and here, sitting in the middle of the stalls, I could tell that the food during dinner scenes was definitely real and definitely hot! A nice little real touch from the creative team.
“Girl From the North Country” is a little bit too slow at times, and develops the story in its own time. But the vocal and musical layers of the show make up for the show’s pace for me. So come for the music, stay for the emotions – just be ready to shed a tear or two by the end.
“Girl From the North Country”
New Wimbledon Theatre
14 -18 March 2023
WRITER & DIRECTOR
MUSIC & LYRICS
SCENIC & COSTUME DESIGN
ORCHESTRATIONS, ARRANGEMENTS & MUSICAL SUPERVISION
Simon Hale & Conor McPherson
Jessica Ronane CDG