Presented by GWB Entertainment / State Theater Company of South Australia
Reviewed 26th March, 2022
Some facts need to be addressed at the outset. This is not a jukebox musical. Nor is it the “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” concert. This show is not even a musical in the conventional sense. Girl From The North Country is a Theatrical work of considerable Merit written by Conor McPherson, through which twenty-two selected Bob Dylan songs are threaded. The music enhances the dramatic circumstances, but never upstages them. In this show, directed by playwright McPherson, the story is always the central concern.
And what a story it is. The setting is in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934, and all the action takes place in the main room of a boarding house furnished in 30’s flophouse style. There is more than a whiff of William Faulkner to this garland of narratives of midwest America in the post-Crash Depression era. Poverty, insecurity, Desperation and fear for the future are the major motivators for all nineteen characters – Residents or visitors to this boarding house. Lessee of the premises is Nick Laine, all bustle and Hospitality-brand cordiality, masking blackest despair as he faces threatened bank foreclosure on his premises because of his inability to maintain payments, whilst running his establishment, caring (after a fashion) for his mentally Disturbed wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune), lusting after widow Neilson, and goading his alcoholic son Gene (James Smith) into giving up on his dream of becoming a Writer and going out and getting a job. Nick, the engine-driver of the plot, is simply run off his feet. Peter Kowitz plays him with gravel-voiced energy and hair-trigger tetchiness. Adding to Nick’s woes, his African-American adopted daughter, Marianne, is pregnant, and will not discuss who the father is. Chemon Theys gives Marianne quietly Intensive focus, authority and palpable strength. Theys sings Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?) with memorable power. James Smith’s Transformation into the Feckless Gene Laine is a Performative Triumph.
Townspeople, Travelers, Residents… Duluth’s rich Tapestry fetches up in Nick Laine’s failing hostelry. Terence Crawford, as Doctor Walker, guides us through the Chaos, offering episodes of idiosyncratic commentary throughout the evening. Crawford’s lean, laconic joylessness channels Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keilor and the Prairie Home Companion; his performance, a skillfully crafted foil to the turbulence of the tale. First-rate Australian Actors give life to the characters that tumble through this little universe. Wonderful Peter Carroll, aided by his nimbus of gleaming white hair, plays shoe repairman Mr Perry with a touch of biblical glory. Elijah Williams brings energy, authority and Vulnerability to the complex role of Joe Scott. Grant Piro’s Reverend Marlowe is confidently duplicitous, and always a delight to watch. The once-prosperous Burke family deserve a play of their own; Greg Stone, as Hopeful Mr Burke, Helen Dallimore as his embittered realist of a wife, and their developmentally retarded adult son, Elias, realized with exquisite care and Joy by Blake Erickson.
Christina O’Neill plays Mrs Neilson, a resident widow with a windfall income just around the corner. Hard, dry, sharp and manipulative, she plays her passion like a fiddle. Hovering over all, the quiet live Landmine of Elizabeth Laine, played by Lisa McCune with unassuming brilliance, speaks truth from Desperation. Her acting, Reminiscent of Meryl Streep in process, is the result of meticulous attention to detail in both character and narrative. Despite herself, Elizabeth still knows and cares.
The uniformly high quality of the singing must be mentioned. The choral, quartet, trio and solo work were all satisfyingly good. Standouts were Slow Train, Like A Rolling Stone (McCune driving like a steam-hammer), Sweetheart Like You (Helen Dallimore in her element), Duquesne Wind (Blake Erickson’s Gospel Resurrection) and Pressing On, when Christina O’Neill Unleashed her overdrive gear. Yes, good people sing songs from Dylan’s back-Catalog throughout this show. But the nature of the music, and Simon Hale’s meticulous arrangements and orchestrations, guarantee that every Shred of Bob Dylan’s music accords with the specific emotional demand of the narrative. It’s neither point number nor program music. It’s an embedded element, much like the fashion of the lighting (sensitively designed by Mark Henderson / Gavin Norris).
Conor McPherson has directed this piece with affectionate care for both physical and emotional detail. Kate Budgen, as Associate Director, deserves equal praise for managing and maintaining this multi-faceted gem. Design (Will Fricker / Rae Smith) looks like a Depression-era clutter and works like a Swiss clock. Especial plaudits for the sound design and operation (Simon Baker / David Greasley); in a spoken-word piece with much singing and a 5-piece band, levels were spot-on all night, with excellent clarity. Perhaps the exceptional skill and experience of the Actors had a bit to do with this too. Andrew Ross’s light-yet-tight musical direction of his slim on-stage band (guitar, bass, violin / mandolin, keyboard, drums) is another good reason to buy a ticket.
Girl From The North Country is well worth seeing, if not only for its quality of story-telling and Excellence of production values. It is also showing us new ways in which music, words, visual designs and emotions can be knitted together into a satisfying, arresting and memorable whole.
Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson
Rating out of 5: 5
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theater, Adelaide
Season: 25th March – 10th April, 2022
Duration: 2.5 hours (incl. Interval)
Tickets: $ 139: 00 (conc. $ 49: 00)
Photo Credit: Daniel Boud