It’s a musical, written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, conceived in sorrow but blessed with the joy of splendid voices harmonizing through 21 Dylan numbers, written between 1963 and 1997. “Forever Young,” “Jokerman,” “Slow Train,” “Is Your Love in Vain?” “Hurricane” — each composition is arranged with impeccable emotional pitch by Simon Hale, with assists from McPherson. And each supports the framework the director builds of the interlocking stories of broken lives, revealing in music the heartbreak of misfortune, but also that renewable human resource — hope.
“Girl From the North Country” originated at London’s Old Vic Theatre, moved onto the West End and then off-Broadway’s Public Theater. In those last two incarnations, both of which I caught, the show had already shaped up as a variation on musicals made up of the existing hits of a rock or pop composer. On this occasion, the songs do nothing to advance the multidimensional plot, having to do with the travails and private pain of the flophouse tenants: among them, a widow (Jeannette Bayardelle) awaiting her estate settlement; a family (Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Todd Almond) one step ahead of the debt collectors; a convict (Austin Scott) on the lam; and a Bible salesman (Matt McGrath) of dubious piety.
The songs, apportioned among these characters and the locals — who include the bone-weary innkeeper (Jay O. Sanders) and his mentally incapacitated wife (Mare Winningham) — seem to oscillate on another quasi-naturalistic plane. That may account for some of the confusion some theatergoers report, in trying to make sense of how these characters and songs relate to one another.
Think, though, of the denizens of “Girl From the North Country” as evanescences of an American past, all now having vanished — as the neighborhood doctor (Robert Joy) tells us they have. In that spectral context, one that McPherson, a specialist in ghost stories, knows well, you’re freed from too much concentration on why someone sings “Idiot Wind” or “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Many songs, though, do feel as if they’re customized to character. The spectacular version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” for instance, delivered by Winningham’s psychically lost Elizabeth, seems to emanate from an especially isolated soul. Then there is the stunning setting for “Duquesne Whistle,” performed with an almost mystical charisma by Almond’s childlike Elias.
This latest installment of the show retains much of its cast from the Public Theater, with three significant changes: McGrath, Scott and, particularly, Sanders. His Nick, father to Gene (Colton Ryan) and Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), a black foundling, is a terrific adhesive performance for the ensemble. Nick is the only character who doesn’t sing, and it’s easy to see why. Battered and burdened by life, unwilling anymore to expose his heart, he simply no longer can hear the music. This Nick, following Stephen Bogardus in the role, adds something to the brooding urgency of “Girl From the North Country.” And he helps us understand why this production is the best “North Country” yet.
The time together that most of this cast has enjoyed has made for a more ecstatic meeting of minds, and talents. The capacity for humans to console one another by proximity — and music — is reaffirmed in the Belasco. Singling out performances doesn’t feel quite the thing to do, so let me just add that Caitlin Houlahan and Tom Nelis, as, respectively, a teacher in love with Nick and Elizabeth’s son, and a suitor way too old for their daughter, are as essential to the evening’s pleasure as everyone else on that stage.
Rae Smith’s period costumes and incidental set pieces serve the director’s intentions well. That is to say, they invite us into the contemplative rapture of a musical of ordinary, damaged people, singing majestically for their supper.
Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music and lyrics, Bob Dylan. Music direction, Marco Paguia; lighting, Mark Henderson; movement, Lucy Hind; sound, Simon Baker. With Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams. About two hours 15 minutes. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.