The In-Person Experience: Broadway’s Girl From the North Country
This night was a long time coming. In March of 2020, I was scheduled to see this show on its press night, a night that would soon beknown as the night the lights went out on Broadway. I had boarded a plane on March 12th, 2020 to fly from Toronto to NYC in the late morning. I was finishing up my last edit on a review of the Broadway musical Six that was to open that night, finalizing my schedule at the office the next day, and looking forward to flying to London, England Friday night to see a ton of shows almost every night while there, followed by a long relaxing weekend in Madrid. Good times were coming, I thought, somewhat nervously, as I flipped through the news items on my iPhone while waiting to board my flight. But when I landed in NYC, I was met by a very different landscape and schedule. “Hold that review“, I was told, “the show isn’t going to open tonight, as Broadway is shutting down in response to the pandemic“. There would be no trip to Madrid, London, or the West End Theatres. There would be no more in-person face-to-face psychotherapy sessions for a long time coming. And there would be no Girl From the North Country Broadway show that night. Sorry, John B., we will have to wait, be patient, and hold on tight to our hope and our optimism. Sounds like a stance Bob Dylan and all those compelling characters in Girl From the North Country might resonate with.
Filing down the aisle at the gorgeous Belasco Theatre, the company of actors positioned themselves for the journey ahead, all to three’s a crowd. The body language is stiff and uncomfortable, but worn, like an old wool coat, tattered a bit on the edges, with sadness and pain in the physical form putting weighted pressure on their tired spine. It’s an engaging and captivating entry, up onto the stage, and onto Broadway in general. I saw this show before in the fall of 2018, long before any thoughts of a lockdown. It played wide at the Public Theater in downtown NYC, giving space to the energy from side to side. Back then, and now, it filled the air with a deep sense of intimacy and longing that was persuasive. It held our hand, gently and politely, not being too forceful, but not being limp or casual either. It’s a complicated dynamic to be worn out and upright at the same time, but they feed each other, exhaustingly, but that tense fragrance in the air is not all that surprising since the music and lyrics are by the iconic Bob Dylan (Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, 2016), with the (pretty much) always brilliant Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer) credited with the writing and the passionate direction of this new musical, Girl From the North Country. Downtown the show attracted a lot of buzz and excitement in the lobby of the Public (me included), especially knowing about the sold-out run at London’s Old Vic and its West End transfer. And now, on that beautiful old stage on Broadway, the achingly beautiful story of a band of frustrated and down-trodden souls struggling to make sense of their lives in a rooming house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, finds its equal and its glorious home.
Utilizing Dylan’s inimitable songbook as the emotional core of the piece, the story floats out even tighter, delivering a lyrical poem tinged with misery inside some perfectly orchestrated music and songs, thanks to the music director, Marco Paguia (Broadway’s Everyday Rapture, SpongeBob…), orchestrations, arranger & musical supervisor Simon Hale (Broadway’s Finding Neverland), and music coordinator, Dean Sharenow (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), who effortlessly and gently blends it all together beautifully with the emotionally ladened movement and dance created with a pure sense of time and place by movement director Lucy Hind (RSC’s Miss Littlewood). The expanded backdrop weighs even heavier on the soul, as love and devotion are wrapped up and drowned along the sidelines. The stage feels constricted and tighter, giving it a strong sense of self and precision, as styled with warmth and compassion by all involved. Epitomized by the caring, but not perfect Dr. Walker, embodied thoughtfully by Robert Joy (Public’s Head of Passes) in a small but important role, the piece floats out to us, gently, like dust being stirred up by the sweeping of an old wooden floor. The particles dance in the angled light from a window, bringing a sad beauty into the space for us all to see and smell.
The Girl from the North Country is exactly as I thought it would be from the first visual, but somehow more intimate and emotional. Filling out the dynamic tableau, an upright piano is tucked into the side and a drum set on the other, with old-fashioned parlor lamps illuminating the cozy thread-bare area perfectly. It feels barren, but folksy with the exactly right amount of dust hanging in the air, thanks to the thoughtful creation by scenic and costume designer Rae Smith (Lincoln Center’s War Horse). Exacting for a musical that sweeps us up as we take in the band and the cast of characters flowing in from all around. Trench coats and old fashioned hats adorn their frames as they make their way through the wet streets to the guest house of Nick Laine, played strongly by Jay O. Sanders (Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama) and his far-away but shrewdly observant wife, Elizabeth, portrayed dynamically by the always spectacular Mare Winningham (PH’s Rancho Viejo). Both are tender and tied together, like a rolling stone, just trying to keep everyone alive another day, serving up some warm stew to feed the forlorn and troubled. Elizabeth’s dementia rings true in the space, feeling distracted and appearing absent, albeit clear-eyed and obstinate, especially when it comes to the efforts of Mrs. Neilson, portrayed smoothly by the fantastic Jeannette Bayardelle (Deaf West’s Big River) who seems to help out with everything and more in and around the house. Both create intricate attachments within that framework, showing us who they are at every moment on stage.
The tension arrives at the door when two travelers show up late one night looking for a place to hang their hat and rest their head. Joe Scott is the less talkative one, looking for some quiet and a dry place to sleep, yet finds himself doing battle in a fight that seems utterly pointless and unneeded. It’s a complex moment, but Austin Scott (Broadway’s Hamilton) embodies the captivating Joe with a weight and energy that elicits discomfort and electricity at the same time, heroically taking center stage at the microphone to deliver a knock-down musical performance with ever pivot. He’s magnetic and intriguing, especially when saddling up to the complex and lost Marianne Laine, portrayed with grace and grit by Kimber Elayne Sprawl (Broadway’s A Bronx Tale). She’s the young found daughter of the guest house owners who find themselves all in a bit of trouble and looking around for an escape. The layering of need inside her frame vibrates out effectively. Solidly determined and defiant, as if she has any say in the matter, she will not be shoved into the arms of her father’s intended savior, the well-off old man, Mr. Perry, played to perfection by the subtle Tom Nelis (Broadway’s Indecent). She will hold out for something else, even if it doesn’t make sense. Her troubled brother, the problematic fighting son of the owners, Gene, played laconically by the engaging Colin Bates (Off-Broadway’s The Effect) has his focus clearly set on a bottle of medicional whiskey but his eye on the desperate and torn Kate Draper, played sweetly in both style and voice by the lovely Caitlin Houlahan (Broadway’s Waitress). She’s making her escape on the arm of another man, all the way to Boston, but can’t quite wrap her head around leaving Gene.
‘How does it feel to want another so badly?‘, sing the two, accentuating the song’s emotional core gloriously in front of a pair of old-fashioned microphones, deepening the artistic visual, thanks to the solid sound design by Simon Baker (Broadway/Old Vic’s Groundhog Day). The widescreen backdrop to their attraction engulfs the Belasco, as it does throughout the show, giving gorgeous tableaus and powerful silhouettes that register deep in our collective soul. The two stand, breaking our hearts in moody pools of light and wind-swept horizons, designed with impeccable clarity by Mark Henderson (Broadway’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses). This smooth and gently soulful piece, filled to the brim with desperation and hopelessness, blends compassion with desire, especially when Winningham stunningly sings to be on her own. The rest watch patiently from the edges, as the cast of forlorn characters floats dishearteningly around the surprising songstress giving silent understanding with every shuffle, reminiscent of the 1930’s dust belt of America. “How does it feel?“, and we wonder, and feel their smooth power.
The shady Reverend Marlowe, played with a sharp con man’s edge by the wonderful Matt McGrath (Keen Co’s Lonely Planet) will sell you a bible for $2 to find salvation, while systematically attempting to sell freedom for a great deal more. The ploy revolves most dynamically around the topic of simpleton Elias Burke, played fascinatingly by Todd Almond (Public Works’ The Tempest). In his complicated demeanor, he finds the way to tug at our sympathetic heart, like a slice out of Mice and Men. Even with the edge of violence held back, but it is in the solid frame of Marc Kudisch (Broadway’s 9 to 5) as his father, Mr. Burke who tries his best to protect him from the world, that grabs us hard by the throat. His red hot, lush of a wife, the dynamic Luba Mason (York Theatre’s Unexpected Joy) adds another layer of frustrated love and pain, thrilling us all with her “six drops a day” kinda magic, especially when she gets behind that drum set and harnesses all the attention away from almost anyone else. She demands from us with ease, much like the talented ensemble; Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, who broaden the landscape with their presence. They raise the roof with their illustrious singing, dancing, and emotive silhouettes, creating a piece of lustrous beauty and poetic emotionality that swings deep, infusing our souls with the smell of bourbon and compassion. The music wraps us in sadness and warmth all at once, like the smell of that dark liquid on a cold night. It ushers us into and out of something so mystically beautiful that it is almost too difficult to pin down. And why would we want to. It’s a coat that I’d love to wrap myself up in again and again. I guess that’s part of the magic of Dylan. Something I wasn’t aware of until now.