Bob Dylan musical is “dramatically beautiful,” now on stage in Toronto
It’s a mistake to expect Girl from the North Country — playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre — to be a musical. It’s a play with singing and some dancing. With a couple of exceptions, the songs are sung to the audience, not by one character to another the way they usually are in musicals. Playwright Conor McPherson says it’s “a conversation between the songs and the story.”
Simon Hale’s superb arrangements of 20 Bob Dylan songs — or sometimes parts of songs — as solo and ensemble pieces bring new depth to old favourites like “Slow Train”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “Forever Young.” And the music is just part of what makes the play terrific.
The Depression years don’t make for many happy endings, and this is ultimately a sad story. The play is set in a boarding house in Duluth in late autumn, 1934.
Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay), the owner, has a month to pay the mortgage or the bank is going to foreclose and he’s frantically trying to figure out what to do. His wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben) has what we would now call early-onset dementia and alternates between not talking at all and saying whatever pops into her mind, no matter how inappropriate or garbage-mouthed. Nick is having an affair with Mrs. Neilsen (Rachel John), a widow waiting for her inheritance and living in the boarding house.
His son Gene (Colin Bates) is an alcoholic wannabe writer and his adopted 19-year-old daughter Marianne (Gloria Obianyo) is pregnant and not telling anyone who the father is.
The other residents are the Burke family who lost everything in the crash. Mr Burke (David Ganly) is full of improbable business schemes and doesn’t seem to do much about them, while Mrs. Burke (Anna-Jane Casey) takes care of their adult son Elias (Steffan Harri) who has the mind of a four-year old.
Two other guests arrive late at night in the middle of a storm; Reverend Marlowe (Finbar Lynch), a bible salesman, and Joe Scott (Shaq Taylor), a boxer who just spent three years in jail.
The narrator is Dr. Walker (Ferdy Roberts) who sets the scenes for the audience and knows and visits everyone at the boarding house.
The other frequent visitor is Mr. Perry (Sidney Kean), the 70-year-old shoe repairer of questionable character who is courting Marianne.
Including the ensemble, there are 19 very talented actor/singers in the cast. Each performance was excellent, but there were some parts that I particularly loved: the yearning between Gene and Kate (Gemma Sutton) as they sing “I Want You”; Marianne’s dignity as she tells Mr. Perry why she will never accept his offer; Nick and Elizabeth dancing together so lovingly.
And then there are three numbers that I’ll remember for years.
Brayben, downstage right. There’s a spotlight on her, cutting through the darkness, as she slowly sings the opening to “Like a Rolling Stone.” As the tempo picks up, she moves to centre stage with her stand-up mic and is joined by the ensemble. Her voice and her body made me think of Janis Joplin. So dramatically beautiful.
Then there was Harri, in a white suit, singing “Duquesne Whistle”; the release, the joy, and the exhilaration are palpable. I adored it.
Finally, Brayben, singing “Forever Young,” was heartfelt, poignant, heartrending; I cried, my friend Patricia cried, and a woman behind me wept.
The music was magical. There’s a piano and a set of drums on stage. The piano is really a prop, the characters play it a bit during the show, but there’s a real piano in the orchestra. The drums are part of the orchestra but are played by Anna-Jane Casey, who plays Mrs. Burke.
The rest of the orchestra, led by Musical Director Ian Ross who played piano and harmonium, was stage right at the back and couldn’t really be seen. There were also a violin, a mandolin, a lap steel resonator, acoustic and nylon steel guitars, an upright bass, a banjo, and a harmonica. All instruments of their time.
Rae Smith’s set was plain; it looked like the inside of a run down boarding house; mismatched wooden chairs, a large wooden table, a small piano, small table lamps. There was one chair that looked as if it might be a bit comfortable, but that was reserved for Elizabeth.
I loved Mark Henderson’s lighting. I don’t think I’ve ever raved about lighting in a review before, but I found it gorgeous. It was never too bright in the boarding house, it fit the drabness of the set. During some of the scenes there were vignettes of a few of the characters. They were beautifully lit; a couple made me think of muted Impressionist paintings. The action continued beside and behind them, but those characters were barely lit at all. The contrast was visually stunning. I also loved the use of spotlights.
There were so many things that I enjoyed about Girl from the North Country. I could keep going but I’d end up with a book instead of a fairly short review. I’m sure you already realized this, but I absolutely loved it. I highly recommend that you go see it. You might want to take tissues.
- Girl from the North Country is playing until November 24 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King St. W.)
- Performances are Tuesday to Saturday 8pm
Saturday & Sunday 2pm
Added performance: Sun. Nov. 3 at 7:30pm
No performance Oct. 31
- Ticket prices range from $39 to $154. Rush seats may be available, some with special student pricing.
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.872.1212, or in person at the box office
Flashing light, bursts of sound including live gunshots, on-stage smoking, mature language. Recommended for ages twelve (12) and up. Babes in arms or children under the age of two (2) are not permitted in the theatre.
Photo of Katie Brayben, Shaq Taylor and the cast by Cylla von Tiedemann