Girl From the North Country goes south

Thu. February 15, 2024 12:00 AM
by Jerry Nunn

Girl From the North Country showed early promise at the beginning then quickly went south. The idea of drumming up stories for a musical set in Duluth, Minnesota, which is the birthplace of songwriter Bob Dylan, seemed like the perfect match to feature his iconic catalog. His team was looking for another project after Twyla Tharp's The Times They Are A-Changin' to debut in London's West End in 2017. Irish playwright Conor McPherson was tapped on the shoulder to write a book piecing together various characters in 1934 during the Great Depression to accompany Dylan's tunes. During its Broadway premiere the production was shuttered because of the pandemic, so it had plenty of time to workshop the kinks out before it resumed in October of 2021. The North American Tour launched in 2023 at the Orpheus Theatre, which Dylan previously owned.

The show begins with the house lights still on highlighting a sparse set where various characters converge in a guesthouse near the shores of Lake Superior. The owner of the place, Nick Laine, is trying to save his property and care for his wife Elizabeth who suffers from dementia. Their alcoholic son Gene struggles in the search for love and their adoptive daughter Marianne is pregnant with a mystery father. After dodging a creepy suitor, Marianne runs into a boxer named Joe Scott who is staying at her house. There's also a fire and brimstone preacher named Marlowe, a rich widow for Nick's cheating heart and a family with a son on the spectrum all under one roof.

This leads to awkward situations and a soap opera that doesn't know how to end. The time period for the piece was seven years before the icon was born and his catalog is shoehorned into a convoluted plot so messy that even the Our Town narrator can't sort it out.

These human stories are very complicated and could each stand on their own without a jukebox musical holding them up. What epically fails with this production is trying to wrap each of their narratives up in a tidy bow to end each character arc. Tacking on a Dylan track after a speech is not the answer.

The talented performers are left onstage holding the bag and trying to make sense of it. The audience is left confused and “the answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind” under a disco ball.

The story needs retooling for this rag-tag group of people living in a chaotic house on the prairie. The victims of North Country are denied their moments of redemption because of choppy writing and there's no resolution for the audience.

Many of the voices in the cast are outstanding and there are strong performances along the way with some creative and unique staging. That is when this production shines, but it's a “Slow Train” to get there.

Girl just needs to pick a team, either sing the entire time like Evita or convey these powerful stories within a dramatic play without songs to fully flesh them out.

Pete Townsend's Tommy, David Byrne's American Utopia and Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill are examples of what could have been, but instead, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan gave us Mamma Mia!

Girl From the North Country stays in the Windy City until Feb. 25 then heads south to Florida in March. Pick up tickets for this two-and-a-half-hour trip at