Girl From The North Country is a 'Must-See".
Last month, Girl From The North Country opened in Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, making its Canadian premiere after successful runs in London and New York City. This innovative new musical has an intricate book by Connor McPherson, wrapped in Bob Dylan’s songs - but not the ones you think.
Girl From The North Country is set in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 and focuses on the community of people residing in a guesthouse owned by the Laine family. Nick Laine is deeply in debt, and cares for his wife, Elizabeth, who has dementia. Their son is a drunk, and their daughter is unmarried and pregnant. Many of the tenants of the guesthouse are struggling through the Great Depression, including a widow awaiting an inheritance, and a couple who have an adult son with the mental age of four. Everyone seems to be teetering on the edge, and the midnight arrival of a bible salesman and a boxer causes everything to begin to slide out of control.
Ultimately, McPherson has written a story about different people, from different lives, being brought together by a common factor. In this production, it’s the effects of the Great Depression which has united this community; introducing the universal truth that at the core, we really are all the same.
In addition to his duties as a writer, McPherson also serves as the director for this raw new take on musical theatre. Truly, no one else could have done it better as his vision is clear throughout the piece. From the minute the show begins, without an overture, announcement, or even a curtain, McPherson makes it very clear that this musical is not going to be the average theatre experience.
Girl From The North Country is not “The Bob Dylan Musical”, it isn’t a jukebox musical, it isn’t a biography, and it isn’t even a simple compilation of what are considered Dylan’s greatest hits.
The book of this musical rejects the concept of theatre for escapism. A vignette of real life, it boldly addresses issues like poverty, racism, mental illness, suicide, addiction, and violence, which are often considered ‘too dark’ for the average musical. Instead of transporting viewers to a world where everything can be solved by bursting into song and dance, it simply provides a reminder that in real life, sometimes there is no real resolution.
One of the biggest ways this production is unlike the traditional blockbuster musical lies in the presentation of its songs. At first glance, the songs seem separate from the story, musical interludes - but very quickly comes the realization that the songs are working in tandem with the story. In the show, musical numbers are presented at microphones, sung to the audiences, with some of the instruments being played by actors within the piece. The removal of the fourth wall, and use of songs which may not relate directly to the context of the piece, allow the performers to convey the depth of the emotions underneath. While unexpected, the use of these techniques is incredibly effective, stripping away character and circumstance to reveal the beating heart of each story told.
In a cast overflowing with talent, and a musical with so many principal characters, it is extremely difficult to discuss ‘standout’ performances. Each character has a story to tell which blends into that of the next performer. The actors form a tight-knit community onstage, breathing life into a collective character - the guesthouse itself.
Katie Brayben is exquisite as Elizabeth Laine. Living with dementia, Elizabeth resides in a different reality than those around her, but ironically seems to have more of a grasp on their situation. Ms Brayben’s portrayal ranges from heartbreaking to hopeful, finessed by her comedic timing and versatile physicality. Her rendition of Like A Rolling Stone is a crowd-pleaser, and is immensely powerful.
Girl From The North Country may not be the musical you expect, but it is a musical you need to see. Layered, complex, and evocative, this stunning show is sure to stay with audiences long after they have left the theatre. This production is set to return to perform in London’s West End, while another production is headed for Broadway in 2020. Luckily for us, the show will continue to run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until November 24th. Don’t miss your chance to experience Girl From The North Country!