by Brittany Crowell
There is a cast of characters at Nick Laine’s flophouse in Duluth, Minnesota. It’s winter of 1934 and we are introduced to the Laines and their various guests: Mrs. Neilson, the widow who is coming into some money and has her eyes on Nick; Mr. and Mrs. Burke and their son Elias; an out-of-his luck boxer, a shoe mender, and a bible salesman. This is the premise of Girl from the North Country, the new Broadway musical featuring songs by Bob Dylan and a script by Conor McPherson at the Belasco Theater.
Girl from the North Country opened in 2020 and was a victim of the global pandemic, shutting its doors on March 12 (just a week after opening). It has now reopened for a limited engagement (through June 11), however, despite the arduous road to bring the show to audiences, the performance (also directed by McPherson) feels unpolished and messy.
McPherson has written dynamic and interesting characters into the flophouse, however, he has not given the narrative enough time to deepen the audience’s relationship with them in order to feel the impact of their story.
While we see the two young lovebirds, boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) and Nick’s pregnant daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), interact, we don’t get a sense of their growing affection; when Joe invites Marianne to run away with him, the decision feels brash more than romantic and the payoff isn’t felt. Similarly, the Burke family is being threatened by the traveling preacher (who we learn to be a con artist), however, the story line isn’t complete and the tragedy the family experiences towards the end of the play leads to more unanswered questions, its impact lost on the audience.
Two characters suffer exceptionally from the lack of development, Elizabeth Laine (Mare Winningham), the wife of guesthouse owner, Nick Laine (understudy, John Schiappa), who is suffering from early onset dementia and Elias Burke (played by the outstanding understudy, Ben Mayne), the 30-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Burke with the mental age of a 4-year-old. Without more history and specificity, these characters felt like stereotypes and ideas of their conditions rather than individuals with depth and meaning. Elizabeth’s dementia was inconsistent throughout the piece, being unable to feed herself one moment and handling realistic conversations the next, her illness coming across as more of a tragic comedic crutch than a true look at a woman suffering from a sick mind.
While the performances by the cast were all solid and heartfelt, many were stylistically at odds with each other, with some performing caricatures while others played in the realm of deeply emotional realism. This was not helped by the pacing of the piece which often shifted jarringly from slow to fast, silent to screams, meandering to rapid, and was amplified by songs that did not fit smoothly into the fabric of the narrative and followed a disjointed logic for who sang when and why. The lighting design by Mark Henderson failed to throw focus and often felt misplaced and mis-paced (making me question if lights had blown out or a cue had been missed), sound that needed tightening, and a set that flew in and out without necessity, creating new rooms without building environments and leaving the audience feeling lost in the maze of flophouse hallways and corridors.
Girl from the North Country has so much potential, though much like the inhabitants of the flophouse, it lacks direction. It reads more as a concert and play mash-up with a few too many people on the stage and a deeply tried attempt at emotionally impacting the audience. If I’m being honest, I really wanted to like it, Bob Dylan is a poet and his songs were beautifully performed by the cast, however I left feeling extremely disappointed and wondered – with a little more development and a few crisping brush-up rehearsals; what could it be?
GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY –
Written and directed by Conor McPherson; music and lyrics by Bob Dylan
FEATURING: Todd Almond, Colin Bates, Jeanette Bayardelle, Craig Bierko, Jennifer Blood, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Luba Mason, Ben Mayne, Matt McGrath, Tom Nelis, Jay O. Sanders, John Schiappa, Austin Scott, Housso Semon, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Ben Toomer, Chiara Trentalange, Bob Walton, Aidan Wharton, Chelsea LeeWilliams, Mare Winningham
Set and costumes by Rae Smith; lighting by Mark Henderson; sound by Simon Baker; music direction by Marco Paguia; movement by Lucy Hind. Presented by Runaway Entertainment, The Old Vic, and The Public Theater at the Belasco Theater (111 West 44th St) through June 11. www.northcountryonbroadway.com