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Review: ‘Girl from the North Country’ is a genuinely soulful and cathartic experience

Photo by Matthew Murphy

“How does it feel,” Elizabeth Laine, a perceptive but unstable mother and wife, aggressively sings, “to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” 

At first glance, Elizabeth appears to be referring to a former businessman who is running from the law and now finds himself being blackmailed by a slimy self-professed preacher. But in truth, the lyric could apply to any of the downtrodden residents of the rundown boarding house operated by Elizabeth and her well-meaning but overwhelmed husband.

To name just a few others, there’s the African-American boxer who “the authorities came to blame for somethin’ that he never done”; the pugilistic young writer whose alcoholism costs him his girlfriend; or the unmarried, pregnant teen who is being uncomfortably eyed by an elderly shoe mender. Or perhaps Elizabeth, who is mentally ill and claims to hear the voice of a girl trapped in a hole, means herself. 

Kitchen sink drama is beautifully intermixed with approximately 20 Bob Dylan songs in “Girl from the North Country,” a haunting, mysterious and stunning new musical written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson and set in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s hometown) during the Depression. It has arrived on Broadway following earlier runs in London and Off-Broadway at the Public Theater.

Technically speaking, “Girl from the Northern Country” is a jukebox musical in that it contains a score made up of songs (both famous and little-known) previously written by Dylan. But at the same time, it could not be further from the silly camp or sanitized backstage documentaries that are commonly associated with the jukebox genre. In fact, “Girl from the North Country” hardly feels like a musical at all, but rather a play that happens to be accompanied by free-floating songs. 

It is reminiscent of McPherson’s earlier plays (such as “The Weir,” “Shining City” and “The Seafarer”), which are similarly driven by a melancholy aura, ghostly presence and flawed characters who have detailed backstories and are caught in compromising and desperate circumstances. The scenes are dark, downbeat and gritty, delving into poverty, murder, sexual assault, hate crime, injustice, and opioid abuse.

McPherson makes little attempt to have Dylan’s introspective, poetic songs (arranged in a period country-folk style, with intricate harmonies) directly flow out of the dialogue. Instead, they function as a kind of live soundtrack, commenting upon a preceding scene or heightening an emotion or mood. The musicians (who play their instruments onstage) and back-up singers mix in with the principal actors, creating a seamless company. 

The ensemble (including Jay O. Sanders, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Todd Almond, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason and Matt McGrath) is uniformly excellent, but it is Mare Winningham who anchors the production with her raw and powerful performance as Elizabeth.

In lesser hands, the show may have felt static or unduly depressing. But under McPherson’s focused direction, it is unusually transfixing. Whether you call it a musical or not, “Girl from the North Country” makes for genuinely soulful and cathartic drama.

“Girl from the North Country” plays an open run at the Belasco Theatre. 111 W. 44th St., northcountryonbroadway.com.

4 stars

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