Bob Dylan songs shine in ‘Girl from the North Country’ at Kennedy Center

The cast are all stellar singers. In ensemble numbers, they are nearly celestial.

When you see Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country (and you must!), here’s a bit of advice. Leave all your preconceived notions about how a musical should be structured in the capacious lobby of the Kennedy Center and enter the Eisenhower Theater with fresh eyes and ears. You’ll be rewarded with a remarkable performance that combines acclaimed Irish playwright McPherson’s gifted storytelling with the piercing brilliance of Bob Dylan’s eternal songbook.

When approached by Dylan’s organization about the possibility of writing a musical using the songwriter’s work, McPherson’s first instinct was to back away. But the idea took root, and Girl from the North Country premiered at London’s Old Vic in 2017. It was first staged in New York the following year.

Chiara Trentalange (center) and the cast of the ‘Girl from the North Country’ North American tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The action is set in Dylan’s native Duluth, Minnesota, during the height of the Depression in 1934. Thanksgiving is approaching, and with it, the region’s notoriously long and blustery winter. Nick Laine (John Schiappa) runs a dilapidated boarding house on the edge of foreclosure. His wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood) is hurtling toward dementia, his son Gene (Ben Biggers) — an aspiring writer — is drowning in drink. The Laines’ adopted African American daughter Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie) is four months pregnant by a runaway suitor. Dr. Walker (Alan Ariano), a classic enabler, provides both occasional Our Town-like narration and morphine to quell the worst of some characters’ (and his own) angst.

Nick welcomes long-term boarders and incidental guests. There are reasons they’ve all ended up there, none of them good. Alcoholism, drug abuse, abandonment, poverty, racism, violence, and just plain bad luck top the list. Nonetheless, a wistful camaraderie, silky and delicate as a spider’s web, grows up between some of the characters.

The story pitches forward in a series of short, diamond-sharp encounters. Laine plots briefly with his boarder Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods) to run away together once her late husband’s estate is probated. Mr. and Mrs. Burke (David Benoit and Jill Van Velzer) desperately try to protect their man-child son Elias (Aidan Wharton) and his secrets from the blackmailing Bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb).

Dylan’s songs, few of which are performed in their entirety, punctuate the action. So closely do the scenes follow the songs, there is no time for the audience to get off a single clap. Quick-moving scenery pushed by the actors and abrupt changes in lighting add to the snap-shot-like pace of the production. Some may find these dizzying transitions lacking in coherence. Others, like me, may find them exhilarating.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Sharaé Moultrie; Matt Manuel; Jill Van Velzer; Aidan Wharton and the cast of the ‘Girl from the North Country’ North American tour. Photos by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

McPherson wisely avoided crafting a “jukebox musical,” that is, a play written around an existing body of popular songs. Instead, the music parallels the action: occasionally carrying the narrative forward but most frequently — and brilliantly — used to enhance the play’s mood and engage us in the torrent of emotions playing out on stage. In the process, we rediscover the universality and malleability of Dylan’s rich repertoire. “I Want You,” originally recorded by Dylan as a fast-paced anthem, becomes a lovely, slow goodbye between Gene and his girlfriend Kate Draper (Chiara Trentalange), who is marrying and moving East. “Like a Rolling Stone,” among the songwriter’s most enduring works, is belted out of the ballpark by Jennifer Blood. She’s joined by the entire cast, underscoring that in these perilous times, everyone was on the verge of being “without a home. Like a complete unknown.” Dylan’s searing “Hurricane,” about the disgraced boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, comes closest to describing the character Joe Scott (Matt Manuel) — an African American boxer newly released from prison after having been jailed on trumped-up charges. The title song, “Girl from the North Country,” a wistful ballad of lost love, is sung gently, a cappella, and in the background during a particularly pitiable encounter between Marianne and the much older Mr. Perry (Jay Russell).

With an absolute minimum of orchestration (violin, mandolin, bass, guitar, and drums) the production’s vocals must carry the show. The cast members are all stellar singers. Together in the ensemble numbers, they are quite nearly celestial.

Scenic and costume designer Rae Smith plants us squarely in the 30s with her spare vintage furnishings, cardigan sweaters, short socks, and flowing skirts. Handsome scrims function as visual haiku, quickly and effectively sketching the chilly shores of Lake Superior, a homely living room, and the rickety, Depression-ravaged downtown city streets. Movement director Lucy Hind’s sure hand manages the cast’s balletic moves, a visual counterpart to the fast-moving production.

Sometimes, less is more. In Girl from the North Country, a prize-winning playwright (and director of this production) creates crystalline visions of the darkest decade in America’s collective memory. Wrapped in the music of America’s foremost bard, McPherson elevates small stories of human struggle and survival to unaccustomed heights.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Girl from the North Country plays through December 31, 2023, in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($49–$179, with student rush and discounts available) at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

The Kennedy Center program for Girl from the North Country is online here.

The Girl from the North Country national tour website is here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.


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