Artfully conceived and oh so lovingly crafted, Girl From the North Country tempers a heart rending narrative with the heart soothing balm of more than twenty exquisitely arranged Bob Dylan songs.
Expertly realising an ingenious concept, renowned playwright Conor McPherson pens a concise yet heavily populated play and then threads an organic tapestry of beautiful music between the scenes. Contributing gorgeous orchestrations and arrangements, music supervisor Simon Hale works hand in glove with McPherson to perfectly position Dylan’s poetic songs throughout the play.
Also serving as director, McPherson takes his time to introduce the myriad characters, residents of a depressing depression-era boarding house. McPherson’s work takes flight in act two, with some of the most wondrous scenes involving the full company of 18, as the residents buzz and hum in each other’s company. There is not a wasted action nor is there a soul on stage not in full possession and absolute control of their character.
Musical director Andrew Ross works miracles with four musicians, seen onstage throughout the show. Instrumental work is boosted by occasional playing from the cast. Vocal harmonies are at a premium and are a real highlight of the show.
The sepia-toned design is an ideal fit for the Comedy Theatre, the relatively intimate venue also facilitating the audience’s connection to the tender humanity of the characters.
Marquee star Lisa McCune becomes just one of a very talented troupe here, with more than a dozen characters brought vividly to life by the ensemble cast. McCune plays against her sweetheart type as dementia-sufferer Elizabeth Laine, a woman as prone to inappropriate outbursts as she is to catatonic silences. In lovely vocal form, McCune memorably sings Dylan hits “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young.”
As Elizabeth’s exasperated husband Nick Laine, Peter Kowitz adopts a rather exhausting raspy voice, but creates a strong character at the centre of several of the stories.
Nick and Elizabeth’s adopted daughter Marianne maintains an intriguing air of secrecy about her pregnancy, a potentially melodramatic aspect that is neatly underplayed by Chemon Theys. Theys enjoys sweet romantic chemistry with Elijah Williams, who convincingly projects the hesitant vulnerability beneath the physical strength of boxer Joe Scott.
Long term residents, the Burke family features Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore as loving parents financially ruined and long worn down to their last nerve caring for learning disabled son, Elias. Stone delivers a riveting extended scene in act two when Mr Burke implodes from the crippling weight of a terrible secret. Also hitting the drums, Dallimore is heard in lovely voice, particularly in “Is Your Love in Vain?”. Affectingly conveying Elias’ loving nature, Blake Erickson also smashes out showstopper “Duquesne Whistle” to rousing effect.
In a company of gifted singers, Christina O’Neill stands out, her delectable, richly expressive vocal tone sounding lovelier than ever in these wonderful arrangements.
Girl from the North Country may fit the technical definition of a jukebox musical but theatregoers expecting something akin to fuzzy feel-good fluff like Mamma Mia! will be sorely disappointed. This is a serious, slow-burning adult musical of the quality rarely seen in the commercial arena. Bob Dylan’s multitudinous fans will thrill to the musical quality of the sterling performances of these illuminating arrangements.
Girl From the North Country plays at Canberra Theatre Centre from 25 August 2022.
Girl From the North Country plays at Lyric Theatre, Brisbane from 8 September 2022.
Man in Chair reviewed the 2018 West End production of Girl From the North Country.
Photos: #1,#2,#3,#5,#6 Daniel Boud; #4 Matt Byrne