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Girl From The North Country - Review

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by Jen (subscribe)
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Update May 7th 2022
Please note tickets between Fri 6 & Wed 11 May have been rescheduled till June 2022.

Features over 20 songs from the legendary Bob Dylan
girl from the north country review, theatre, performances, performing arts, actors, musical, bob dylan music, the comedy theatre, writer director conor mcpherson, music and lyrics by bob dylanlaurence coy, helen dallimore, elizabeth hay, tony cogin, terence drawford, grace driscolll, blake erickson, peter kowitz, lisa mccune, christina o'neill, james smith, greg stone, elijah williams, grant piro, chemon theys
Images Daniel Boud for original Australian cast photography

The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota 1934, seven years before Bob Dylan was born. The scene is set in the interior of a ramshackle boarding house during the Great Depression, the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialised Western world. The boarding house owned by Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz) and is on the edge of foreclosure by the bank. Residing with him is his wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) who is on the peripheral of dementia, his unemployed alcoholic biological son Gene (James Smith) who dreams of being a writer, and his pregnant adopted African American daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) whom Nick and Elizabeth took in as a baby.

Guests at the boarding house are widow Mrs Neilsen (Christina O'Neill), with whom Nick Laine is having an affair. She's waiting on an inheritance to come through from her late husband's will. Then there's the Burke family consisting of Mr Burke (Greg Stone), the flirtatious Mrs Burke (Helen Dallimore) and their son Elias (Blake Erickson) who is mentally/intellectually challenged and sometimes a dangerous boy-man. They've lost everything and are travelling to find work.

In and out of the boarding house and passing through are Bible Salesman Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro) who is more than a tad shifty; Joe Scott (Elijah Williams), a former boxer who has been released from incarceration; Katherine Draper (Elizabeth Hay), Gene Laine's could-be heartbreaker girlfriend; Mr Perry (Laurence Coy) a local elderly gentleman of well means to whom Nick hopes to marry his pregnant daughter off to; and Dr Walker (Terence Crawford) the towns doctor who is also the baritone narrator, pitch-perfect like listening to a radio play.

The stage is lit in muted sepia tones with soft lighting illuminating the actors, comes time for their performances. The colour palette bathing the stage takes you closer to a reflection of the era of depression. Most of the scenes are inside the boarding house, with an occasional backdrop descending for the outdoor scenes, performers in the background sometimes in shadow and profile silhouettes for effect. The lighting design also helps keep the costuming in its '30s era.

You'll find Girl from the North Country at the Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition St, Melbourne playing until Saturday 4 June 2022. It's two and a half hours long, inclusive of a 20 min interval. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, Dylan posted 40 of his albums and entrusted them to Conor McPherson on a simple premise. When asked what he would do if he had the entire Dylan catalogue at his disposal, Conor's response won over the trust of Dylan - as follows.

"I'm thinking of an expansive Eugene O'Neill type play with Bob Dylan's love songs intertwined. Perhaps set in a depression-era boarding house in a US city in the 1930s with a loose family of thrown-together drifters, ne'er do wells and poor romantics striving for love and understanding as they forage about their deadbeat lives. We could have old lovers, young lovers, betrayers and idealists rubbing along against each other. And at the heart of it all, these songs that emerge out of the folk tradition and lead the way into something more individually expressive and timeless."

Conor McPherson more than honoured the music of Dylan and wove them into the storyline, rather than as a standalone highlight, sometimes threading two, three, or four songs together in unusual ways to make sense in the play. The songs were sat comfortably as part of the narrative even though they sometimes didn't conclude and went straight into a piece of dialogue, making it a seamless connection to the storyline. All the song choices in the play were from Conor, but Simon Hale, in charge of orchestrations, arrangements and music supervision had to colour and craft songs to fit in with Conor's concept. In the underscore, Simon has taken Dylan's music and rearranged them completely. Some of them are used very quietly but still recognisable as a Dylan composition. His work is impressive, as the arrangements were definitely the highlight of the play, not to mention the singers/performers who sang them.

Lisa McCune faultlessly delivered renowned songs like 'Like A Rolling Stone' and 'Forever Young'. Who knew McCune could execute a song with powerful vocals so wonderfully, with heart and meaning, light and shade; the actress in her expressing and delivering each line with powerful body language to match. Overall, McCune's at times fidgety, at times manic performance, occasionally spitting out expletives like someone with Tourette Syndrome, provided uncontrived comedy that had the audience laughing out loud. She displayed fragility, a shadow of her former self perhaps, yet at times brash, but overall, stunning as always.

Other notable singers with standout performances in song were Blake Erickson (playing Elias Burke) whom you could say 'rose from the ashes' to shine. His powerful vocals and performance shone upon in brilliant lighting almost from the heavens; Christina O'Neill (playing Mrs Neilsen); a shared song between James Smith (playing Gene Laine) and Elizabeth Hay (playing Katherine) in a remake of I Want You, and I just couldn't keep my eyes off Helen Dallimore (playing Mrs Burke) belting out songs at the piano with her powerful, melodic, expressive vocals. Dance and movements were perfectly orchestrated; finger-snapping, foot-stomping, bodies in slow movement - swaying, and flashes of lighting, highlighting beat and adding tempo to movements, something haunting. Dylan's songs were superbly interpreted and sensitively performed by the cast without a doubt. If you were not a Dylan fan before, this could be a revelation.

This is a story without clear protagonists. There's a love story woven into it, but without the wind in its sails. The bigger love story for me was between the Laines, as a husband, beneath the upper layers, faithfully and achingly continues to take care of his wife tenderly to the bitter end. The whole play runs at a leisurely pace, and while the lighting was perfect in expressing its times, it didn't do well for anyone sitting right at the back of the theatre. It's not a very big theatre and normally in Stalls, you couldn't really get a bad seat because of that factor. However, with mood lighting as it was, even though sound and performances were perfect as they were, from the 3rd last row, it was missing expression. It is the nuances expressed by an actor's face that completes the component and that was missing from the back rows. I would like to have seen expressions on faces and thus Blake Erickson's well lit performance was a sigh of relief and a joy to see it all so clearly. The same joy leaped up to greet every moment of side lighting in some scenes and flash lighting that accompanied dance movements in a particular number. The lesson here is to get in early and get the best seats closest to the stage.

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Why? Firl from the North Country review
When: 4 May to 4 June 2022
Where: Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition St, Melbourne, VIC
Cost: $49.90 to $185
Your Comment
Hi Jen, I had tickets for last night's show, but it was postponed yesterday until 10th June. I'm not sure what that means for the rest of the season, but you might want to check it out.
by Fiona Anderson (score: 3|1066) 18 days ago
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