Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
The first thing you’ll hear about Girl from the North Country, receiving its Canadian premiere from Mirvish Productions, is that it’s built from the songbook of Bob Dylan. If you recognize the title, you could be forgiven for imagining that this is a “jukebox musical” about the girl who is recalled and wondered about in Dylan’s 1963 song of this name.
Happily, you’d be about as wrong as you could possibly be.
The story, written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, concerns a disparate group of individuals whose stories momentarily intertwine at Nick Laine’s boardinghouse during the transition of fall to premature winter in Duluth in the year 1934. For different reasons and for different durations, they huddle here in the desolate Minnesota landscape, which is conjured in sparse images projected at the back of the stage. Their different (and usually doomed) dreams keep them here and eventually propel them away.
The characters are compelling, and we learn their stories quickly. Those who are married – are without exception unhappy, whether they remain in the marriage or have left behind an undissolved marriage. Their young adult children – also without exception – are damaged and suffering. Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay) is the fatalistic proprietor. He is married to Elizabeth (Katie Brayden), who has fallen victim to an obtuse yet acutely sage form of dementia. His son Gene (Colin Bates) is a writer and a drunk – frozen in place by this unproductive combination. And daughter Marianne (Gloria Obianyo) is their adopted and pregnant daughter – a black woman who was the product of some other unhappy prior union. Nick has taken up with a boarder Mrs. Neilsen (Rachel John). He works to stave off the looming foreclosure of the boardinghouse and to find ways out for his children, even if these ways out defy who they are . . . yet in his bones, he seems to know that people can’t grow, can’t change, and can’t escape their fates.
And this is just the proprietor’s family. There’s also another damaged family, an ex-boxer with a mysterious past, a smooth-talking preacher, and Dr. Walker (Ferdy Roberts) who narrates the show. Again, and almost (but not quite) without exception, each seems doomed. As winter sets in, the only question is whether their end will be cruelly quick or soul-crushingly slow.
The boardinghouse set is sparsely populated with simple, period-specific furniture dominated by the table where the characters gather for meals. It feels like we’re in the anteroom to the hereafter, where a collection of damned (or near-damned, or soon-to-be-damned) lost souls have met in some ill-defined limbo to await judgment and their final destination.
It’s utterly compelling. And yes, it’s every bit as grim as it sounds.
And yet . . . and yet . . .the songs!
Dylan’s songs – or more precisely Simon Hale’s transcendent arrangements of Dylan’s songs – transform this cold antechamber into something at once grimmer and warmer. From the opening song “Sign on the Window” (which begins before the audience is even aware the musical has started) to the closing “Forever Young”, Dylan’s songs, which are sung and performed with fiddle, piano and drum by the on-stage performers, burst forth like volcanic eruptions from the spiritual magma running deep beneath this corner of Duluth in 1934. A song almost never channels a single character’s voice directly. Instead – whether performed with aching simplicity as a solo, or elaborated into an energetic, full-cast musical number – each song is an unbearably sweet, mysterious and melancholic ichor of truth. It’s so powerful that we cannot safely consume it. We can marvel at it, sense its shadowed connection to these characters and their stories, grab for a moment at shards of meaning . . . but then, as the song dies back, we must move on.
Where a jukebox musical like Mamma Mia or Bat out of Hell is a connect-the-dots exercise of threading crowd-pleasing hits into plausible character utterances, no such attempt is made here. Dylan’s songs with their opaque lyrics would defy the effort, of course. Moreover, the Dylan hits are sparse because McPherson and Hale have instead mined the deep tracks from Dylan’s discography. And when the hits do appear (“Like a Rolling Stone” or “I Want You”), they’re not the anthems we know. They’ve been elementally re-fashioned – they’re at once nothing but themselves and something utterly new.
And no applause breaks the elemental spell. At unexpected moments, the action breaks as these damaged characters move to, then away from, the old-style microphones which transmit their song and mark the rotating location of its emotional center. And each song ends just a little unexpectedly. The action suddenly picks up and forestalls the applause that would otherwise ensue. This is a deep meditation and commentary on life, its struggles and what lies beneath it. We’re intended to focus: to inhabit the moment, not slip in and out of comfortable detachment.
Utterly unlike any other musical I have ever seen, Girl from the North Country haunts me with its strange, grim yet transcendent fusion of song and story. There is such deep pain in these characters’ compelling stories . . . and such indescribable, shockingly transitory beauty in the music summoned from beneath or distilled inside this desolate place.
If you value unique theatrical experiences, you simply can’t afford to miss Girl from the North Country. But when you see it, I suggest you hang back just a little.
You’re in the presence of the eternal here. Peer too far into its depths, and the memory of one of those exquisite, unalloyed sonic eruptions might just drive you mad.
News You Can Use
What: Girl from the North Country (Canadian Premiere)│Written and Directed by Conor McPherson│Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan│Scenic and Costume Design by Rae Smith│Lighting Design by Mark Henderson│Sound design by Simon Baker│Orchestrations, Arrangements, and Music Supervision by Simon Hale, with additional arrangements by Simon Hale and Conor McPherson│Movement Direction by Lucy Hind
When: On stage until November 24, 2019
Where: Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: Mirvish.com
© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019