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  • Writer's pictureFrank Schierloh

REVIEW: Girl from the North Country (National Tour, Forrest Theatre, Philadelphia)

Melancholy abounds in the charming, yet confounding Bob Dylan musical. 


Jukebox musicals are odd creatures. The ability to take an already existing catalog of songs and string it together with a narrative structure is no easy feat. It is especially challenging when the creative decision is made to tell an original story, as opposed to making a biographical show about the musical artist. Oftentimes, non-biographical jukebox musicals fail to resonate with audiences, usually because the script gets sacrificed in service of fitting as many notable songs in as possible. The Girl from the North Country attempts to marry a script by renowned playwright Conor McPherson to the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan, and while it utilizes many lesser known Dylan songs to aid its story, it doesn’t always feel fully realized

 

Hurricane

McPherson sets the story in Duluth, Minnesota during the Great Depression. An underused narrator greets the audience and welcomes Nick Laine, his wife Elizabeth, and the residents of the failing guesthouse that he owns and operates to the stage. A fast-paced, frenetic parade of characters are introduced in a way that is at times confusing, and often so quick to establish the relationships that it feels there should be yarn and pins included in the Playbill to create your own connection board. The housemates proceed to face challenges that range from tragic to melodramatic, in a rapid fire pace that keeps the show moving energetically. The story McPherson is telling is simple in its themes and musings, and actually quite moving in what it is trying to decipher about life, which makes it all the more confounding when it decides to upend certain characters' lives, or when they make choices that don’t feel fully earned. 


This frenetic script is paired with beautifully melancholic orchestrations of Bob Dylan’s music. Full transparency, I do not know many of Dylan’s songs, so the recognition of his tunes among the story didn’t hit me the same way it did for audience members around me. That being said, the script didn’t always seem to match up with the song that followed it. Especially in Act 2, during a sequence that transitioned through roughly four songs back-to-back, each feeling less informed by the script than its predecessor. There was also a framing device that the songs were generally sung non-diegetically, with microphones appearing and characters shirking their mannerisms in favor of background singing and choreography. This device added to a muddled, confusing feeling that didn’t fully satisfy the script, making the music at times feel more at odds than in service of the admittedly engaging story. 


A scene from Girl from the North Country.
Carla Woods (Mrs. Neilson) and Jill Van Velzer (Mrs. Burke) in Girl from the North Country. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Make You Feel My Love

While the show might be at times confusing and muddled, it is still a charming, often enthralling show to watch. This is because of the truly fantastic cast that has been assembled to tell this story. Vocally there is not a weak spot in the cast, with magnificent musical highlights being Matt Manuel as Joe Scott, Carla Woods as Mrs. Neilsen, Aidan Wharton as Elias Burke, and Sharaé Moultrie as Marianne Laine. Each of these performers has a moment that showcases their wonderful vocal abilities, with Matt Manuel in particular doing some remarkably smooth vocal runs that were a joy to listen to. 


The real star of the show however, is Jennifer Blood as Elizabeth Laine, a woman living with a form of dementia that has her sitting almost catatonic at one moment, then throwing her whole body across the stage in a frenetic arrangement of actions that invoke a youthful exuberance the next. Blood is able to navigate an extremely complex character and instantly endear an audience to her. She fills Elizabeth with such heart and humor that it is a true treat to watch. Her comedic timing is top notch, with her deadpan delivery of insults and witticisms being a highlight of the entire show.


A photo from the national tour of Girl from the North Country.
Jennifer Blood (Elizabeth Laine) in Girl from the North Country. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Girl from the North Country is a truly unique theatrical experience. At times maddening, beautiful, hilarious and confusing, it is a mixed bag of a show…and yet, it excels in both its book and music. When viewed as a play or a concert, either would be exceptional; yet, when paired together as a musical, it makes for a disjointed affair. While the script and score might not always be as cohesive as they could be, a strong cast and rapid pace keep this show from falling into a muddled mess. The haunting orchestrations and interesting commentary on life are there through it all, and when all the elements are in sync, this show soars. It’s just frustrating that it happens less than it could.


A cartoon with links to tickets and info.

Girl from the North Country

is currently playing at The Forrest Theatre (1114 Walnut Street)

from now until March 10th.



For more information visit www.northcountrytour.com.





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Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan
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