Saturday January 8, 2022, 7:30 p.m., Theater Royal Sydney
The highly anticipated combination of writing and directing Conor McPherson with the music of Bob Dylan’s career, GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY arrives at the Theater Royal in Sydney. Playing more with music than the musical, this work transports audiences to life in the American Depression era with Dylan’s catalog used to echo emotion while not particularly using songs to drive the story.
GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is the product of producers Tristan Baker and Charlie Parsons (Runaway Entertainment) who approached Bob Dylan with the idea of getting approval to have a theatrical work created using Dylan’s music, and their Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s subsequent selection to create a work with the freedom to choose from Dylan’s entire catalog of works to mark the original story. The result is a story that takes audiences to a “Guest House” (think guesthouse-style long-term accommodation rather than a vacation spot) run by Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz), a male who struggles to hold everything together to support his wife Elizabeth. (Lisa McCune), a woman unable to help with house operations due to her advanced dementia, her son Gene (James Smith), an aspiring writer in his twenties with a drinking problem, and Marianne (Zahra Newman) , her five-month-old adoptive 19-year-old daughter who refuses to name the father of her baby. The guest house has had four long term tenants in the form of widow Mrs. Nielsen (Christina O’Neill) and the Burke family which consists of Frank (Greg Stone) and Laura (Helen Dallimore) and their son Elias (Blake Erickson), a man with the mental capacity of a child and a strength he doesn’t fully understand. Late one night at the end of November, two other travelers round out the occupants of the house in the form of the traveling Bible vendor, the Reverend Marlow (Grant Piro) and the mysterious young African American Joe Scott (Callum Francis), but even with all the beds in the occupied house, Nick still faces the prospect of the Bank closing the house. The story of the residents of the house is told by family physician Dr Walker (Terrance Crawford) as he watches Nick’s efforts to marry Marianne in an incredibly callous and inappropriate match with Mr. Perry (Peter Carroll) , put Gene with a job. , and chart a new life with Mrs. Nielsen even as his wife sits dazedly in the wing chair in the corner of the room.
Visual- assortment of chairs around the dining table. The costumes are reminiscent of the era, in a similar way, showing that the occupants of the house all once had money before the Great Depression swept the country. The simple rearrangement of the furniture on stage combines with the projected backgrounds that reinforce the different locations in the house, a bar where locals gather for music and dancing, and a more general inference of the location of the city. of Duluth Minnesota being located on the shores of Lake Superior.
Although the work is generally presented as a musical, it is more of a game with music as the selection of songs by Bob Dylan is not used to advance the story but rather to highlight the emotion of the work with a broad connection in a manner similar to an original soundtrack. to a movie lies below the drama. The songs are not integrated into the plot but rather delivered to cover physical movement performed without dialogue or to echo a scene that was played out with retro microphone stands often purchased on stage for musical numbers and ensemble seen as choristers around another microphone.
Notable performances for musical numbers come from Callum Francis who gives a captivating interpretation of hurricane to reinforce Joe’s story as a wrongly convicted African-American boxer, Zahara Newman’s reflection Close connection with my heart and the mighty one of Blake Erickson Duquesne whistle where the public is finally regaled with his talents. Helen Dallimore, who also accompanies most musical numbers on drums, delivers a fabulous solo in darling like you which is imbued with emotion and an understanding of the lyrics, reinforcing the fact that she was sadly underused in this cast and perhaps gave the role of Elizabeth better depth, connection and honesty in both the Elizabeth’s dramatic expression and key solo Like a rolling stone than the stilted expression that showed more direction than intuition seen on opening night.
In addition to Dallimore, the strongest dramatic performances came from Newman, Francis and Erickson with Peter Carroll as septuagenarian Mr. Perry and Greg Stone as Mr. Burke all of whom achieved a sincerity of expression that seemed innate. and unforced even in the smallest of appearances, reinforced by accents and credible speech patterns. It is recognized that McPherson painted the majority of the characters quite finely in terms of what audiences manage to learn about them, but these performers have managed to express that they have developed a backstory for their characters, so that their physical reactions, interactions and dialogues are so informed that the audience wants to know more about their story, which is in contrast to some of the more important roles that fail to connect with the audience because the performer was unsuccessful. to connect with his character with the required degree of sincerity or understanding.
Unlike many other musicals, GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY usually doesn’t have a nice happy ending and is a tough take on life in 1930s America in a similar vein to plays by Arthur Miller and Eugene. O’Neill. What at first glance appears to be the main characters are not sympathetic other than the adopted daughter, a stranger as an African American “child” in a white family, which makes for an unusual job as audiences can find more sympathy for Marianne, Joe and the Burke family than anyone else. This is more of a collection of wonderfully performed Bob Dylan songs around a story that feels like you’ve been pitched in but not quite appropriate, so come on for the music and set design more than any other aspect of the job.
This production is scheduled to tour Adelaide (March 25, 2022) and Melbourne (April 29, 2022) after the Sydney season.