'Girl from the North Country' appears as a pretty strange idea for a show when you get down to its origins.
Writer and director Conor McPherson was first approached in 2013 to write a theatrical production drawing on the music of Bob Dylan, receiving the unique freedom of being able to choose from Dylan’s entire catalogue of music from 1961 to the present day. The product of that is a story of love, loss and wanderers in life, set in Duluth, Minnesota, 1934, and channelling the best and least known of Dylan’s discography through Depression era blues.
After Conor McPherson’s vision first hit the stage at the Old Vic in London in 2017, this sparkling new production has slowly made its way down to Melbourne for a spectacular opening night at the Comedy Theatre.
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At the start the stage lay empty, instruments strewn haphazardly across the floor, until a member of the cast walked in unannounced and thus began the show’s first tune, 1970’s lesser know gem ‘Sign on the Window’. From then on, you are seamlessly transported into the lives of the owners and inhabitants of the Minnesotan guesthouse.
Peter Kowitz stars as the proprietor of this ramshackle hotel, trying to keep his mentally ill wife, played by Lisa McCune, in check while welcoming in everyone from the recently escaped criminals to the local widower. Every member of this impressive cast have their moments to shine, such as McCune’s emotional rendition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, which is one to send shivers down your spine.
James Smith and Elizabeth Hay’s impactful duet of ‘I Want You’, from Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece Blonde on Blonde, takes a new spin on the originally chipper, harmonica infused song, instead exposing the emotional potency the track has always held.
The major crowd-pleasing moment was the second act’s medley of Dylan classics ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Hurricane’. You could feel the seating rock as audience members couldn’t help but bob along to the rhythmic perfection that these songs displayed, helped only by the whole ensemble’s exuberant dancing and wonderfully layered percussion.
It was truly Elijah Williams’ time to shine as the eponymous Hurricane escaped from prison, but what we got was one of the tenderest and most fully realised characters in the show. The central, growing relationship between Williams and Chemon Thys’ Marianne Laine was made even sweeter by their winning chemistry and energetic portrayals, shining through in their short duet of ‘Idiot Wind’.
Girl from the North Country isn’t really your usual musical, as the songs don’t necessarily explore the beats of the story but rather paint a poetic image of what the characters are thinking through Dylan’s poetry.
With its earthy, blues-inspired band organically integrated into the atmosphere of its world, this show rides the line between a musical period piece and an Arthur Miller style family drama. Girl from the North Country has something for everyone; beautifully executed deep cuts for Bob Dylan fans coupled with a story that will effortlessly tug at the heart strings.
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