A series of unfortunate events has come to Broadway.
No, not the Lemony Snicket novels, but “Girl From the North Country,” a mashup of Bob Dylan songs and abject misery. The show, which opened Thursday night, is little more than a stack of vaguely depressed persons who take breaks from sad scenes to sing anguished and questionably relevant songs.
A doctor-narrator straight out of “Our Town” says early on, “Pain comes in all kinds: physical, spiritual, indescribable.” He fails to mention theatrical.
Writer-director Conor McPherson’s mopey musical, previously performed in London, Toronto and off-Broadway, is set in Dylan’s hometown, Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934 — some seven years before the musician was born. It’s not a biography, but a story of a fictitious, failing boarding house whose denizens — drunks, an escaped convict and a sleazy Bible salesman among them — could all use a therapist.
The establishment is run by the exhausted Nick (Jay O. Sanders) and his wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), who has dementia. Their son Gene (Colton Ryan) is an aspiring writer who drinks too much, and their adopted daughter Marianne was left on their doorstep as a baby. Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), who’s black, pregnant and unwed, is threatened by the resurgence of the local Ku Klux Klan.
The playwright, who’s Irish, has a hokey vision of Depression-era America that never rings true. That traveling salesman, for instance, is a dead ringer for one of the grifters from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“I don’t preach the word,” he says. “I sell it!” The others speak in folksy phrases.
Nevertheless, “Girl From the North Country” has some sublime musical moments. The most grounded and honest comes when Gene sings “I Want You” inches away from the face of the girl he loves, but can’t be with. The most energized number is “Like a Rolling Stone,” sung by a marvelous Winningham, whose Elizabeth, confused but also clear-eyed and unfiltered, is the only character we care for. She gives you a taste of the vitality this show might’ve had.
One flabbergasting number is a rousing, gospel-inflected rendition of “Duquesne Whistle” led by Elias (Todd Almond), a mentally disabled man-child who seems modeled on Lennie from “Of Mice and Men.” His tragic circumstances, rammed into the play’s second half, are turned into a cheap grab for tears.
There are many other Dylan songs here, including the 1963 title number, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Hurricane,” and they’re all performed well, often accompanied by an onstage band. But McPherson’s staging tends to slow and tone them down. “Girl” trades Dylan’s rebel twang for a consistent funeral-hymn vibe that oversimplifies a diverse 60-year career. To make a musical score cohesive doesn’t mean every song must sound the same.
This is the fourth new musical this season without an original score. The times, they are a-changin’.
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