KeyBank’s ‘Girl From The North Country’ is a ‘slow train’ that jumps the track
Well, it’s not like we were not warned. My wife and I always make it a point to arrive at the theater early. This gives us a chance to get comfortable and to read the program for hints as to what we are going to see that evening. Page 28 of the program for the KeyBank Broadway Series production of Connor McPherson’s (with music by Bob Dylan) “Girl From The North Country” has a program note from David Greene, Senior VP of Programming. It states that the performance “set during the Great Depression of 1934 at a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota is a non-traditional musical.” Boy, he is not kidding.
That was evident by the subdued nature and comments of the exiting crowd (those who stuck it out to the end of the nearly 2 ½ hour sit time). As they shuffled and baffled their way out into the crisp autumn air comments ranged from “Huh?” to “Did you understand any of that?” Most were expecting a jukebox musical in the vein of “Rent”, “Jersey Boys” or “Hamilton” where the songs are dove-tailed into the story line. Not Here...Not Tonight.
What you get is twelve characters and four ensemble/soloist who are exceptional singers, actors and dancers in their own right in one very depressing story about the Great Depression (go figure) with Bob Dylan songs that really do not propel the story forward. If anything it caused a great deal of confusion as your mind attempts to fit two odd pieces together from two different puzzles. You have basically two different entities thrown together. Welcome to modern theater.
Many of us mature folks grew up with the songs of Robert Allen Zimmerman. We sang them during protests against the war, we rallied behind them in pursuit of noble causes and yes, we even fell in love...or what at the time was considered “love.” It was a time of blatant liberals, social upheaval, life changing books, counterculture music, sex, drugs and rock and roll that swept us along in a heady rush.
As for Dylan, he was a Jewish lad raised in Minnesota by parents who had survived the Russian purge of Jews. Robert found a knack for words and music, changed his name and began a career that is still going strong this 60 years later. He even found time in his busy life to convert to Christianity, pop out a few gospel albums then reconvert to his former faith. How his music was chosen for a story set in 1934 is anyone’s guess.
“Girl From The North Country” premiered at The Old Vic in London for a three month run. It had a few days run on Broadway from March 5th to 12th, 2020 until COVID shut it down then resumed on October 13, 2021 until June 19, 2022 when it closed for good.
It is 1934 and the Great Depression is still dragging on. Luckily, Prohibition has ended the previous year and there is booze aplenty. Dr. Walker (Alan Ariano) is the town’s physician (and resident drug addict) who cares for the Laine family. Nick (John Schiappa) runs a rundown boarding house with a collection of “interesting characters”. Nick’s wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood) has various and interlocking mental issues. They have two children, twenty something Gene (Ben Biggers) who has anger management issues and an adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sharae Moultrie) who is nineteen and four months along (father unknown).
The various guests and hanger-ons are introduced with their individual stories. There is Kate Draper (Chiara Trentalange) who is Gene’s departing girl friend (which is part of his anger issues). Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods), Nick’s older live-in girl friend who is also pregnant. Mr. Perry (Jay Russell) who is elderly, owns the town store and is in pursuit of Marianne. The Burke family that consists of Mr. Burke (David Benoit), Mrs. Burke (Jill Van Velzer) and son Elias (Aidan Wharton) who is a simpleton with limited mental faculties.
On a stormy night two strangers enter, Joe Scott (Matt Manuel), a down on his luck professional boxer and the Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb) who eeks out a living selling bibles. They seek shelter from the storm and from life in general. Their appearance sets into motion changes for all of the inhabitants. Throughout the show, twenty-two Dylan numbers are sung with scant relationship to anything connected with the story line so don’t even try.
While this is a very well produced show with excellent singing, dancing, acting and a strong story line it is a truly depressing story. There is no glossy Broadway set, lighting, costumes, videos projections or pyrotechnics. Nary a sequin can be found in sight although there are three disco balls that are used a lot. It is simply an evening of acting with unrelated songs thrown in. If you are a Dylan fan, you will appreciate the various renditions.
The KeyBank Broadway Series production of “Girl From The North Country” will be on stage in the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square through Sunday, November 19, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets go to www.playhousesquare.org or call (216) 241-6000.