Lisa McCune (plays Elizabeth Laine) in Girl from the North Country.
Girl From the North Country, featuring the music of Bob Dylan, Wellington Opera House, reviewed by Max Rashbrooke
Girl from the North Country, a ‘jukebox’ musical woven out of Bob Dylan’s back catalog by Irishman Conor McPherson, is a contemporary theatrical sensation, having played to rave reviews in both Britain and the US.
Set in Dylan’s birthplace – Duluth, Minnesota – in 1934, its sombre story revolves around a disparate cast of characters inhabiting a down-at-heel boarding-house during the depths of the Depression.
Bankrupts, ex-convicts, depressed wives, struggling writers, hard-up widows, dodgy Bible salesmen: the full panoply of desperate American ‘types’ is on show.
A dark, brown-toned set – its main decoration a few chairs and a piano, and its lighting turned down low – feels simple but intimate.
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One of the show’s main innovations is that Dylan’s songs serve less to advance the action – or even explain a character’s thoughts – than they do to suggest an alternate universe of hopes and desires, things half-glimpsed but out of reach.
Bringing touches of gospel and hints of Irish folk, Simon Hale’s sparse but intelligent arrangements reveal new depths in Dylan’s songwriting, and get the treatment they deserve from a cast whose singing is frequently outstanding.
A sad, slowed-down rendition of I Want You is especially good, while Lisa McCune (as the distressed Elizabeth Laine) sings superbly on Like a Rolling Stone, and Blake Erickson (Elias Burke) nearly steals the show with a barnstorming version of Duquesne whistle
The show, which has to interweave over a dozen individual stories, crackles along, and the actors move swiftly and seamlessly from lead characters to background dancers to occasional musicians. But if movement is this production’s great strength, it is also its chief drawback. Even the show’s most sympathetic reviewers have noted a tendency towards caricature that is hardly surprising, given how little space each character can be afforded.
That’s not to say the writing is bad; it isn’t. In the right hands, it would have enough drama and intrigue, and the characters enough power, to overcome the drift to caricature. Some of its lines are illuminating. And there are spaces for a telling gesture, a compelling change of tone. Unfortunately, this Australian-based ensemble doesn’t take advantage of that often enough.
Instead they rush about, and sometimes seem more eager to project an outward shape of their character into the vast Opera House auditorium rather than reach deeper inside.
As a sad and haunting evocation of economic desperation, this production still lingers in the mind – but could have been so much more.
Girl from the North country is on at the Opera House, until Sunday.