1934. The Great Depression wreaks havoc on small town Duluth, Minnesota.
It seems like a time where joy would be absent, and yet, Girl From The North Country lights a hopeful spark in an abyss of darkness.
Pain is what threads each character together, with it coming from all different sources. For some, it’s financial devastation, others are struggling with alcoholism or mental illness, and one character grapples with an unexplainable pregnancy. But the commonality is that all of them hurt, even those who are not open about it. These broken and lost souls float towards each other like proverbial moths to a flame, gathering at a guesthouse suffering its own grim fate.
Girl From The North Country truly sits apart from most modern musicals. While technically a jukebox in its use of pre-existing pop music (in this case, the work of Bob Dylan), structurally it feels more like a play with music rather than a musical. This serves to heighten the drama of the piece, allowing the music to act as a purely narrative device, with each song providing the audience a snapshot into the minds of those singing. It doesn’t feel like a jukebox, it feels as if each of these songs was deliberately crafted to serve the book, a credit to Conor McPherson’s scripting, and a testament to the transformative magic of Bob Dylan’s songwriting. The use of music is introspective, amplifying the mood of the moment, or heightening the actions of the characters, resulting in a truly unique viewing experience.
Terence Crawford’s Dr. Walker serves as the narrator of the piece, inextricably linking each character that enters the Laine’s guesthouse, but in unison they act as an inimitable ensemble. There truly aren’t any lead roles in this show, but rather, an assortment of cogs in a very well oiled machine, cohesively moving together to keep the piece moving forward to its end. We see glimpses of each character in the songs, with a cast boasting some of Australia’s most established talent – Lisa McCune, Peter Kowitz, Zahra Newman, Christina O’Neill, Grant Piro, Callum Francis, James Smith, Elizabeth Hay, Blake Erickson, Helen Dallimore, Greg Stone, and Peter Caroll.
The ensemble, comprised of Elijah Williams, Liam Wigney, Tony Cogin, Chemon Theys, Samantha Morley, Laurence Coy, and Tony Black shapeshift into the townspeople of Duluth, the passers by, the troubled souls that visit the Laine’s home. The onstage band are often joined by members of the cast playing various instruments, creating a real dream-like ambiance with character wafting in and out of the story.
Another breath of fresh air is the set design. In a time where glitz and glamour have taken over Broadway, the set of Girl From The North Country is sparse, and delightfully so. Vague country backdrops fly in and out on transparent flats, acting as the canvas for the vibrant stories of each character, occasionally embellished with furniture.
However, at the core of the show is the music. Dylan’s country music is the driving pulse that both literally and figuratively underscores the tragedies, triumphs, and journeys of each and every character. It’s a heart-wrenching exploration of life, longing, anger, and sorrow.
Take some time to visit the North Country before it’s too late.
Girl From The North Country is currently playing at Sydney’s Theatre Royal until February 27th. It then tours to Adelaide (from March 25th) and Melbourne (from April 29th).
For tickets and more information, visit northcountry.com.au