Theatre Review: Who Really Is “The Girl From the North Country?”

Kevin Taft reviews The Girl From the North Country, a theatrical production featuring a stellar cast and beautiful song arrangements, but a mixed bag in terms of its writing.
User Rating: 6.5

With a short run on Broadway before the pandemic closed theaters in 2020, the Bob Dylan-inspired musical The Girl From the North Country has arrived at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood as a part of its National Tour.

A play that wants to be a musical or a musical that feels more like a play with music, “North Country” is a bit of an odd creation. The show is described as follows: “It’s 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota. We meet a group of wayward travelers whose lives intersect in a guesthouse filled with music, life, and hope.”

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As such, this ends up being an ensemble show focusing on a variety of pretty downtrodden people trying to survive during the Great Depression. The “Girl” of the title is never really identified, as no female character truly takes center stage. Instead, we have a family who runs a guesthouse that consists of the gruff patriarch Nick (John Schiappa), his dementia-stricken wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood), their aimless nephew Gene (Ben Biggers), and their adopted daughter Marianne (Sharae Moultrie) who has recently discovered she is pregnant under mysterious circumstance she won’t talk about.

There’s also Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods), who lives there permanently and helps where she can. She and John are also having an affair—not that it’s much of a secret.

They take in a variety of borders, including a fractured couple (David Benoit and Jill Van Velzer) and their mentally challenged adult son (Aidan Wharton), a wayward snake-oil minister (Jeremy Webb), and a boxer (Matt Manuel) he ran into on the way to the inn.

This collection of characters will bond, squabble, love, and alter each other’s lives before the end of Act II. Between the various stories of hope, trauma, longing, and fear, there are a lot of classic Bob Dylan songs such as “I Want You” (one of the best of the night), “Make You Feel My Love,” “Forever Young,” and “All Along the Watchtower.” How these songs fit into the narrative is up to interpretation and doesn’t always feel solidly linked to the action going on, but truth be told, they were all sung beautifully.

The cast is uniformly good, with the standouts being Blood, whose somewhat loony character has some of the show’s most emotional moments, Woods, the secret love of Nick’s life, and Manuel, the boxer with a heart of gold.

The problem lies with a book that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be or who it wants to focus on. The characters’ stories are glossed over, and others feel like they are missing important beats to connect the dots. Had celebrated playwright Conor McPherson (“The Seafarer”) chosen just a few of the stories to center his show on, this could have been a more affecting tale.

As directed by McPherson himself, the story moves along, but the headscratcher is the use of an old-timey ribbon microphone that the cast regularly uses to sing songs about their woes. None of the characters are singers or actors, and there’s a radio on stage, but it is rarely used, so why is the cast suddenly part of a ’30s radio show? Perhaps this notion is buried somewhere in Dylan’s music.

Ultimately, aside from a stellar cast and beautiful song arrangements, the play never gains ground as our attention is never sure where it should be placed. It’s an interesting effort, but it might have worked better as a play where the characters could really be fleshed out ala Tennessee Williams. As it stands, the clunky mix of drama and music doesn’t sing.

“The Girl From the North Country” continues through June 2nd at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
For information and tickets, visit www.broadwayinhollywood.com.

6.5
Fair
Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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