For decades the songs of Bob Dylan have served as cultural signposts, poetic and notoriously dense explosions of words usually framed by simple melodic changes. The “three chords and the truth” Harlan Howard used to describe Country music is expanded to the utmost reaches of metaphysical sense, where tambourine men and jokers and hurricanes all vie for our attention. Even the most devoted Dylanologist can get lost in literalism, finding solace instead a series of moods that evoke feelings often more than you’re going to make sense of it all.
For anyone going into celebrated Irish playwright Connor McPherson’s stage production Girl From The North Country looking for easy answers won’t find them in the interspersed musical sequences. There’s exactly one time I noted overt thematic consistency, when the track from the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde “I Want You” is used overtly to connect the affections of two characters. More dicey would be “Hurricane” from the 1976 record Desire, where Dylan’s explicit textual references to Ruben Carter’s case get wildly confused with just how we’re supposed to relate to the play’s character of an ex-prisoner boxer save for the overt notions of judicial unfairness, other than what’s already on the page.
The storyline for the play is set in Duluth, Minnesota during the cold winter of 1934. While Dylan moved to Hibbing when he was a young child, it was Duluth where he was born, and is but one of many metatextual connections to the singer the play makes allusion to. Dylan is of course not an explicit character in the play, but his songs serve as both explicit chorus and a backdrop on which the performances hang, blowing as its own kind of wind over the entire show.
The book ostensibly draws out a social melodrama, centered on a family running a rooming house. Nick Laine is the hapless owner, an adult man plagued by guilt from a tragic childhood incident. His wife Elizabeth has bouts of madness, with manic shifts in mood that sees her shift from infantile to homicidal. As an escape he looks to a widow living upstairs to find some solace, a secret not exactly secured from those around. Their son Gene seems to be as self-destructive as his father, refusing to take responsibility for his future. The Laine’s adopted daughter Marianne is an African American who was dropped off Moses-like at their residence, raised as one of their own under the strictures of the Klan-riddled culture of the time. Marianne is pregnant, with hints that it may be either pseudocyesis or immaculately conceived, depending on how much you wish to make the story-line literal.
If that wasn’t complicated enough, the entire family situation is further upended when a boxer Joe Scott and a bible salesman named Marlowe enter, causing things to shift even further. Plus there’s the Burkes, a business man who lost it all in the great crash and is caring for a mentally challenged yet physically imposing son.
Thus, we have as much drawn from Eugene O’Neill, Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath) and the New Testament as we do from Dylan’s lyrics. For those game the interplay between the sentiments of the songs (rather than any semblance of explicit lyrical underpinning) elevates the narrative to a kind of mythic level. Stripped from these interludes the whole thing would feel like an Ur-soap opera, with misery after misery providing as much simplistic repetition as the chugging chords. For lovers of this kind of theatrics this may be the greatest draw, but for those unrehearsed in such heightened solemnity it all can sometimes feel maliciously melancholic.
There’s little that’s handed gently to the audience – at the presentation even the intro and post-intermission began without warning, with many scrambling to find their seats in the rapidly darkening theater. In the same way, for those going to see the “Bob Dylan musical” there are relatively few tracks that would be considered “hits”, and in fact the majority of tracks come from albums like 1983’s Infidels, 1970s New Morning, 1978’s Street Legal and 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. These are in their ways deep cuts pleasing for the Dylanphiles that kept up with his musical journey, but for a generation raised on his 1960s output there’s not a whole lot to hook into.
Fans will not that if there’s a thread connecting some of these more obscure recordings it’s that many are drawn from Bob’s “Christian period”, where his own yearning for spiritual truth for a short time led him down this path and setting him further apart from his previous community. Notable is the track resurrected from Empire Burlesque, “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)”. Freed from the dated, risible mid-80s production that plagues the original record, this new arrangementbest illustrates the show’s greatest strength in finding these songs songs that for other artists would be major works but in the Dylan canon can be overshadowed by literally hundreds of other compositions. Recontextualized by the play, many of these songs are quite literally given new life and are performed with evangelical zeal.
Much more popular tracks “Like A Rolling Stone” do make their appearance, yet in this case the famous track is sung as a kind of wild, Janis Joplin-meets-Patti Smith scream it’s more unsettling than evocative. Dylan himself has radically shifted his compositions over the years, and the most interesting thing about the play is how it reconstructs even the most obscure of songs into the plaintive atmosphere that exists throughout. Performed with the musicians in view on stage, with characters singing into Shure 55SH’s or thumping on the piano and drums in full view, makes for a surreal collision between what’s taking place story wise and what’s going down as musical expression.
Above all this what gives the play all of its unique and at times effective power, mashing together these remarkable songs with inspired new arrangements, buttressing what otherwise would be a pretty uninteresting narrative about failure and guilt. For many the synergy will be energizing, but for others you almost are waiting for the story elements to take even more a back seat, concentrating instead on the powerful and energetic musical performances over the drawn out drama.
The Toronto cast, soon set to transfer to a splashy West End revival, all have voices that can carry the production to the fullest. The demands are great from the singers, and their mix of country, folk and gospel elements come across as well as would be hoped. There are still some things that frustrate, baked into the show, where a song seems stretched too thin, or (as with the previously mentioned “Rolling Stone”) feels like it’s trying too hard to wring its own sense of originality from the most famous of tracks. Naturally by using a greater number of more obscure tracks the songs can live in this narrative space more easily without the baggage of expectation, which makes these specific elements all the more jarring in contrast.
I’m left with quite a bit of ambivalence about the show. On the one hand, the sound, lighting, costumes and general sense of scope was quite exceptional, turning this claustrophobic guesthouse into something that felt suitable operatic. On the other, I found the story elements inconsistent and frustrating, dancing between socially realistic versus wantonly metaphoric throughout. Naturally, this is exactly the curse of any musical that tries to have it both ways, but for me it just never quite managed to pull of this magic act without blowing this trick a few times along the way.
I’m betting the vast majority of the audience had never heard “Sign on the Window”, “Jokerman” or “Duquesne Whistle” before, making these tracks endemic for them to the world presented on stage. These patrons wouldn’t share the same sense of disjointedness, the overt and repeated realization of how the cover version is being altered musically from its origins and thematically from its lyrics. It was bemusing to say the list to hear a post-standing ovation crowd leave while some grumbled in frustration about “not knowing most of the songs”.
Naturally, none of this matters for the intent of the show. This is an anti-jukebox musical production, antithetical to the Jersey Boys/Mamma Mia/Moving Out shtick. Just as with Dylan’s own tireless musical experimentation and reinvention, it’s a play that takes these songs and these well-trod plot elements as uses them for its own purposes, often inelegantly putting two or three songs together to underline a cliché theme or mood at a particular juncture. When it works it’s a lot of fun, and even when it doesn’t it still makes for a fun time watching a talented lot belt out many of the more obscure Dylan recordings that even this fan hasn’t spent nearly as much time listening to as he should.
As the crowd left the theatre and the cast had taken their bows the band was left on stage, plinking away on their vintage instruments and feeling very much like some T-Bone Burnett fever dream. They played a wordless version of “My Back Pages”, the gloriously elliptical track from 1964’s Another Side record. That blessed, disenchanting refrain, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” seemed a perfect coda for those still paying attention after the lights had gone up and the actors had vacated the space.
What had we just seen, and had it in fact worked? Was this simply a forced marriage between melodrama and the Minneapolis folk maven, or can one glean even deeper meaning from Bob’s tracks seen in this context? Is this a show for Dylan fans, for theatrical hounds, or both? How literal should we take any of the narrative, and if it’s all allegory how can we take any of it seriously? Big questions, perhaps, but entirely in keeping with the same struggles wrought from Dylan’s own discography.
Suffice it to say that for any of its stumbles Girl From The North Country feels absolutely the kind of thing that Dylan’s work would engender, creating a space on stage that requires work to unpack, that uses conventions in unconventional ways, twisting expectations and forcing one to confront both archetype and reinvention alike. It frustrates and fascinates at the same time, and I cannot see Mr. Zimmerman having it any other way.
Girl From The North Country plays at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre until November 24, 2019