MUSIC / “Girl from the North Country”. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, music by Bob Dylan. At Theatre Royal Sydney, until February 27. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.
THIS elegiac portrayal of the lives of a group of people thrown together in a rundown guest house in Minnesota during the depression of 1934 was inspired by the agreement by Bob Dylan to allow access to his entire catalogue of songs for the purpose of creating a musical.
In his program notes, playwright and director Conor McPherson recounts how, tasked with this opportunity, this guesthouse vision kept recurring as he sifted through more than 40 albums of Dylan’s songs in search of inspiration.
Unlike other musicals crafted from existing catalogues of popular composers, McPherson has not shoe-horned Dylan’s songs into a storyline, but instead has used the songs to create mood and question responses to the various predicaments in which the characters find themselves.
Very much an ensemble show with a stellar cast, each of whom portray a particular character, but who also move scenery and props, play musical instruments and form choirs around microphones to sing vocal arrangements that sensitively enhance the singing of the various soloists, as their individual stories unfold.
The show is set up by an introductory precis delivered by Terence Crawford as Dr Walker, who introduces characters, narrates the show and even explains what eventually happened to various characters when the show ends. Even so, some of the individual storylines are complicated, and demand concentration particularly when the actors drop character, but remain in costume, to participate as backing singers.
During the musical numbers the cast is often backlit to create atmospheric stage pictures, or remain in full view as scenery flies in and out, occasionally revealing beautiful panoramic sea views behind them, creating the feeling of an on-going epic saga, rather than a musical.
As Elizabeth Laine, the wife of guest house owner Nick Laine, Lisa McCune offers a finely observed portrayal as a woman suffering an unspecified mental condition, despite looking more like his daughter than his wife.
Her rendition of “Forever Young” is one of many highlights. Peter Kowitz is excellent as Nick Laine, himself on the brink of a breakdown brought on by his failure to manage the guest house profitably, his wife and son’s mental conditions, and the fact that no one has taken responsibility for the pregnancy of his adopted black daughter, Marianne, affectingly portrayed by Zahra Newman.
Peter Carroll commands every scene in which he appears as Mr Perry the elderly bachelor to whom Laine is trying marry off Marianne, while Callum Francis gives a strong performance as the itinerant boxer, fresh out of jail for a wrongful murder conviction, to whom Marianne is attracted.
Helen Dallimore, as the flirtatious Mrs Burke, Greg Stone as her long-suffering husband, Christina O’Neill as the mysterious Mrs Neilsen, and Grant Piro as the con-man, Reverend Marlowe, all shine among a cast of strong character actors.
Despite its leisurely pace, “Girl from the North Country” is a show guaranteed to leave its audience musing over its characters long after the curtain has fallen, and even for those who may not have previously counted themselves as devotees of Bob Dylan’s songs.
The hauntingly beautiful orchestrations and musical arrangements by Simon Hale and Conor McPherson for the score of 22 Bob Dylan songs are so superbly interpreted and sensitively performed by the cast, as to be a revelation.
If you’re in a mood for a revelation perhaps “Girl from the North Country” should be on your “must see” list.
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