There is no denying that Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I’ve lost count the number of covers celebrated artists have done of his songs (and in various genres) from the likes of Stevie Wonder, and Guns N’ Roses, to Adele. So, it’s no surprise that a musical would eventuate, taking his collective works to the stage in a new form.
With music and lyrics by Bob Dylan and its book by writer and director Conor McPherson, the musical has graced West End, Broadway, Toronto, and this year, Girl From The North Country has arrived in Melbourne.
Set in winter of the 1930s in a rundown guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota, and during the Great Depression, Girl From The North Country follows the Laine family who all live and run a guesthouse that the bank is threatening to foreclose.
Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz) is trying to keep his family from being homeless. He has hope that his son, Gene (James Smith) will take up a job, that his adopted daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) will marry local shoe owner and financially stable Mr Perry, that his guest and mistress Mrs Neilsen (Christine O’Neill) will come into some money from her late husband’s will, all while caring for his wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) who is suffering from dementia, and hosting the other guests that are visiting and staying at their accommodation.
The guest list includes Dr Walker (Terence Crawford) who doubles as the narrator, the Burke family consisting of Mr Burke (Greg Stone), Mrs Burke (Helen Dallimore) and their son Elias (Blake Erickson), Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro) who is more of a bible salesman than a man of God, and last but not least, boxer Joe Scott (Elijah Williams) who is looking for a new beginning.
I understand that Peter Carroll was meant to play Mr Perry but was unavailable on the night that I attended. However, I loved Laurence Coy‘s portrayal of Mr Perry who seemed sweet, kind, and bashfully adorable.
Although I did find myself enjoying Girl From The North Country to an extent, I didn’t identify with any of the characters and felt more of an observer than a participant, like a fly on the wall when watching these characters be forced to interact, that would otherwise never meet if not for being under the same roof.
While I could somewhat relate to the Burke family, having a family member with autism myself, the way that things panned out in story left me with a sick feeling in my stomach, that I had to actively remind myself that this is set the 1930s and a lot has changed with our understanding of people with learning disabilities. Although, there’s still much to improve, even now.
There is a fantastic performance by Blake Erickson that follows all this, but I still couldn’t get over what had occurred and was unsure if the suffering was worth the reward of a big number and exit by Erickson’s character, Elias. Despite this, Erickson was truly great with his booming voice and captivatingly commanding stage presence.
Lisa McCune also plays a character with a mental health issue, but I wasn’t triggered by her performance nor Elizabeth’s story. Instead, I found McCune brilliant with her constant switch between somewhat unhinged to child-like and endearing, along with her effortlessly impressive vocals.
The Great Depression was a hard time for everyone and much like history, it seems every character in Girl From The North Country has their own struggles. The light in all of this, I found in characters Marianne and Joe. I relished in every moment Chemon Theys and Elijah Williams were on stage while portraying these characters that exerted an unspoken, undeniable connection and pull that they have for each other. Their voices were also exquisite, and when harmonised together – it was even more beautiful.
Bob Dylan’s songs ‘Slow Train’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Make You Feel My Love’, ‘True Love Tends to Forget’, ‘Forever Young’ and ‘Hurricane’ to name a few, each have an important role to play in this musical, and I dare say, some versions sound better than the originals. The 1930s was the perfect era to use to showcase Dylan’s music and was a clever directorial choice. However, admittedly some songs didn’t always match what was happening in the story.
Girl From The North Country is a snapshot of life in America in the 1930s that is passionately married with Bob Dylan’s poetic songwriting. While I am still puzzled by the title and how it relates to the storyline in any way, seeing this production took me outside my comfort zone which I did appreciate, and it helped me essentially time travel and visit a period that I otherwise would not see. I feel that I learned a little while witnessing this uniquely charming show and I am genuinely grateful for it. Theatre enthusiasts should see this show at least once, but it is an absolute must-see if you’re a Bob Dylan fan.
Girl From The North Country is playing at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre until the 4th of June. It will then make a brief trip overseas to New Zealand in Auckland and Wellington from the end of June to July, before returning to Australia via Canberra in August, and finally Brisbane in September.
For more information and ticketing, visit: https://www.northcountry.com.au
Photography by Matt Byrne.