If we just assembled to hear the many haunting songs by Bob Dylan as sung by cast members in this Public Theater presentation, the experience would be enough of a treat. But writer-director Connor McPherson pursued the idea of combining Dylan’s music and lyrics with a story to which they could be emotionally matched. It turns out to be a very creative fit that makes the musical extra fascinating.
The show is set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934 during the depression era. We meet a vivid assortment of characters, solidly portrayed, who in one way or another are struggling with their lives. When the production breaks into song, the aura is often magical. “Girl from the North Country” was first produced last year at the Old Vic in London, and The Public Theater deserves applause for giving us a look at the work here.
Rae Smith has designed a set that niftily accommodates both the drama and the musical numbers, allowing for a large cast to join in songs like a down-home chorus in the interpretation of the feelings that pour from Dylan’s creativity. (Yes, he deserved that Nobel Prize for literature.) The on-stage orchestra, consisting of piano/harmonium (music director Marco Paguia), guitar (Ross Martin), violin/mandolin (Martha McDonnell) and bass (Mary Ann McSweeney), deserves special praise.
Among the 20 songs included are “Slow Train,” “License to Kill” “I Want You,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “True Love Tends to Forget” and “Forever Young.”
At the core of the plot is Stephen Bogardus as Nick Laine, who badly needs money to hold on to his home and hence rents out rooms. Mare Winningham is touchingly tragic but sometimes bizarrely funny as Nick’s wife, Elizabeth, who is not all there as a result of mental illness. They have adopted a daughter, Kimber Sprawl as Marianne, who is expecting a baby, but it is a question as to who did the deed.
The always excellent Marc Kudisch plays Mr. Burke, a boarder very full of himself, and fine actor David Pittu plays Reverend Marlowe, with Robert Joy as the local Doctor Walker, who at times stands at the side of the stage and serves as narrator. Sydney James Harcourt is effective as Joe Scott, a boxer who has a prison record. Jeanette Bayardelle plays Mrs. Neilson, with whom Nick gets cozy. Others in the cast include Todd Almond, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern and Chelsea Lee Williams.
Running through the angst-filled drama is a portrait of individuals struggling and trying to figure out what to do with their lives and relationships, with much pressure added by the tough economic times.
Here and there fitting a Dylan song into a situation may be slightly strained, but mostly the concept works exceedingly well. You can’t dismiss this one as a juke-box musical. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone:212-967-7555. Reviewed October 2, 2018.