‘Girl From The North Country’ was poetic.
After sellout seasons in West End, Toronto, and Broadway, this award-winning, hauntingly beautiful musical about American life in 1934 Minnesota has finally made its way to the Lyric Theatre stage at QPAC as part of the Brisbane Festival.
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, ‘Girl from the North Country’ focuses on a group of thrown-together drifters, ne’er-do-wells and poor romantics who cross paths at a guesthouse in the heartland of America during the winter of the Great Depression. Each is striving for love and understanding as they go about their deadbeat lives. All are at a turning point and as each character’s story unfolds, hidden truths are revealed that will ultimately affect their future.
McPherson was approached in 2013 to write a play to feature the songs of Bob Dylan, a task he initially didn’t think he could do. One day while out walking, he saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s. He had been to Minnesota twice before – both times in the dead of winter. The friendliness of the people, the dry frozen wind and the vast distance from home stayed with him and he saw a way that Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play. He wrote to Dylan with an idea and was given the green light to go ahead with access to Dylan’s entire catalogue of music.
McPherson was incredibly smart with the choice of songs. It struck him that Dylan’s songs could be sung by anyone in any situation and still make sense and resonate with a particular place, person and time. While McPherson was responsible for all song choices in the show, Simon Hale had the responsibility of re-imagining the orchestrations and arrangements of Dylan’s music, a task he skillfully managed. There are moments in which dialogue flows into a song and back again, weaving music and speech together in glorious harmony.
The story is narrated by Dr Walker (Terence Crawford) and it is evident from the beginning that this is not a happy tale. Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz) is the owner of a rundown guesthouse. He owes the bank more money than he can repay and is on the brink of homelessness. His wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) suffers from dementia and her uninhibited outbursts are becoming difficult to manage. Their adopted daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) is Black, 19 years old, five months pregnant and won’t give up the identity of the father. To secure his daughter’s future, Nick is trying to arrange a marriage between Marianne and the older local shoe mender, Mr Perry (Peter Carroll). Gene the son (James Smith), unable to get a grip on his life, veers between his writing ambitions and alcoholic binges. The situation is not helped when his sweetheart, Kate (Elizabeth Hay), announces she is marrying a man with better prospects.
Nick is having an affair with guest house resident, Mrs Neilson (Christina O’Neill), a widow who is waiting for her late husband’s money to come through so she and Nick can have a better future together. The other residents of the guesthouse are the Burkes. Mr Burke (Greg Stone) lost his business in the crash, and he shares a room upstairs with his wife Laura (Helen Dallimore) and his son Elias (Blake Erickson) who has a learning disability.
Late at night, during a storm, a self-styled reverend bible salesman, Marlowe (Grant Pro), and a down-on-his-luck recently paroled boxer, Joe Scott (Elijah Williams), arrive looking for shelter. The arrival of these characters is a catalyst, changing everything for everyone in the house. Things spiral beyond the point of no return.
The staging of this show is magnificent and the choreography of the set changes is seamless. Set pieces, managed by the cast, glide in and out during and between scenes. Backdrops fall into place, all rhythmically in sync with the music. The look created by scenic designer Rae Smith perfectly embodies a large run-down guest house, full of interesting period pieces. The sepia-toned colour scheme of the set is reflected in the costume design by Rae Smith, and the use of low lighting by designer Mark Henderson creates a feeling of past glories and better times. Use of cast in silhouette is particularly effective and the use of back projections allows the audience a glimpse into the vastness of the wilderness in which the story is set.
This wonderful ensemble piece contains 22 songs and a large cast, resulting in a certain amount of choreography for each scene. This is skillfully handled by movement director, Lucy Hind, who has been with the show since its premiere in 2017. Every moment was utilised to best effect, and no space was wasted.
The talented four-piece band, led by musical director Andrew Ross, shares the stage with the actors and actor-musicians. The renditions of Dylan’s music and songs are rich, soulful and earthy, adding a depth to the stories being played out on stage.
All the cast, from the ensemble to the leads, were exceptionally strong and delivered wonderful performances. McCune gave her all in a heartbreakingly funny role with standout vocals, particularly her rendition of the gutsy ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Williams shone as the recently released prisoner Joe Scott, and his growing relationship with Theys as Marianne was tender and sweet. The difficult family relationship between the Burkes and their son Elias was handled with care by Stone, Helen Dallimore, and Blake Erickson, and Erikson’s ‘Duquesne Whistle’ was a showstopper. James Smith and Hay’s duet ‘I Want You’ shone, and O’Neill’s vocals were consistently strong.
Reminiscent in style and feel of the family dramas of Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Conor McPherson’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ is a beautifully written story told with heart.
‘Girl From The North Country’ performs until Sunday, 18 September 2022 at Lyric Theatre QPAC. For more information visit QPAC’s website.
Photo Credit: Daniel Boud