The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Dylan songbook, ‘Girl From North Country’ is a triumph

Jeannette Bayardelle and the company of "Girl From the North Country" at The Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)
Placeholder while article actions load

NEW YORK — At the thrilling midpoint of “Girl From the North Country” — the musical inspired by Bob Dylan’s songbook that’s poised to galvanize the New York theater season — Mare Winningham raises her lovely voice, and your spirits rise right along with it.

As the grievously damaged Elizabeth Laine, wife of the proprietor of the Minnesota flophouse where the “North Country’s” Depression-era events take place, a splendid Winningham leads a newly orchestrated rendition of one of Dylan’s most beloved pieces, “Like a Rolling Stone.” The marvelous aural effect created on the stage at off-Broadway’s Public Theater by writer-director Conor McPherson and 16 other cast members is of hardship and disappointment ennobled by the healing power of song.

“How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?” Winningham sings, and in light of Elizabeth’s plight — a woman with a mind disordered by grief — the words have a coincidental authority. She’s known, and can’t be known. Not unlike any of the other quietly desperate people who’ve washed up under the roof of Elizabeth and her husband, Nick (Stephen Bogardus), in their Duluth boardinghouse in 1934.

Few of the other 19 numbers in this gorgeous evening — an intimate elegy to a time of American sorrow, in the manner of Thornton Wilder or August Wilson — will be as instantly recognizable to newcomers to Dylan as “Rolling Stone.” But if by night’s end you are not definitively convinced of the songwriter’s theatrically friendly gifts, talents that also have made him the sole rock-and-roll Nobel Prize laureate in literature, then you’ll be bewildered by all of the customers around you, daubing their eyes as they file out of the Public’s Newman Theater with you.

McPherson, the Irish author of such plays with supernatural undercoatings as “Shining City,” “The Seafarer” and “The Weir,” builds a set of intermingled, character-rich stories around Dylan’s songs from 1963 (the title song) to 1985 (“Tight Connection to My Heart”). The voices of the playwright and songwriter coalesce harmoniously; they seem to be in conversation with each other, rather than having tried to force preexisting music to propel a newly made narrative. And still, you never feel an artificial moment in “Girl From the North Country.” These characters from the ’30s — black and white, sincere or shady, stuck in their Iron Range tracks or escaping from someplace or hoping to make it to another — sing in the Duluth-born Dylan’s key so naturally you’d think they’d all whispered directly into his ear.

It falls to Robert Joy’s Dr. Walker, a small-town general practitioner with the kind of weary eye and ragged past you find in the doctors in Chekhov, to set the scene for the events in the Laines’ house, a lot of them having to do with the Laines’ daughter Marianne. Played with an appealing steel by graceful Kimber Sprawl, she’s an African American foundling raised as the Laines’ own, alongside their dissolute writer son Gene (Colton Ryan). Some other remarkably layered portraits are added to these by actors playing the tenants: Jeannette Bayardelle as widowed Mrs. Neilson; Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason as the Burkes, a couple displaced by bad decisions and compelled to care for an adult autistic son, Elias (Todd Almond); and a snake-oil Bible salesman, the Rev. Marlowe (David Pittu), who shows up in the middle of the night with an ex-con and former prizefighter, Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt).

Dressed by set and costume designer Rae Smith as if they’ve each stepped out of an Edward Hopper painting, the performers get their ecstatic solo moments, as other ensemble members, deployed with understated panache by movement director Lucy Hind, gather around standing microphones to fulfill backup-singer assignments. Harcourt is thrust center stage for astounding versions of “Slow Train” and “Hurricane” and Ryan and Caitlin Houlahan imbue “I Want You” with wistful passion. McPherson’s spectral affinities show up in the staging of a stunning second-act number, Almond’s four-alarm delivery of “Duquense Whistle.” This is not even to mention the heart-melting group versions of “Make You Feel My Love,” and (big gulp of verklempt) “Forever Young.”

Some analysts will call “Girl From the North Country” a jukebox show, the term that’s come to mean musicals derived from the existing albums of pop and rock recording artists and the like. But this is too parasitic a term to apply to the artfulness occurring in the Newman. “North Country” is a breakthrough for the songbook form, in the way “Springsteen on Broadway” has redefined the rock concert as personal, theatrical song cycle.

The Dylan-McPherson musical, which had its official opening Monday night in the Newman, was born at the Old Vic Theatre in London, moved triumphantly to the West End (where I saw it earlier this year), and now makes its American premiere on Lafayette Street. Though the original British cast was excellent, the musical becomes a more credible and moving experience with a team of Americans playing these prairie dwellers made nomadic by want. If this wrenching gaggle of souls doesn’t migrate next to a home uptown, then it will be Broadway that is the poorer.

Girl From the North Country , music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, written and directed by Conor McPherson. Sets and costumes, Rae Smith; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Simon Baker; orchestrations, Simon Hale; movement, Lucy Hind; music direction, Marco Paguia; fight direction, UnkleDave’s Fight-House. With Tom Nelis, Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Dec. 23 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. or 212-967-7555.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that “Girl From the North Country” started at the Young Vic Theatre in London. It started at the Old Vic Theatre.