'The Girl From the North Country,' Now at Playhouse Square, Isn't Your Typical Jukebox Musical

The play is accentuated by Bob Dylan's music, not centered around it

click to enlarge 'The Girl From the North Country,' Now at Playhouse Square, Isn't Your Typical Jukebox Musical
(Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Several decades ago, there was a newspaper comic strip called Blondie (no, not the rock band) that featured a doofus named Dagwood Bumstead who had a favorite sandwich—an impossibly tall concoction filled with way too many meats, cheeses and other stuff—clearly impossible to eat.

At first glance, the play with music Girl from the North Country, now at Playhouse Square, would seem to be the theatrical version of Dagwood's gastric monstrosity. It has too much of everything—too many characters with too many problems set in a too-dreary place, infused with Bob Dylan music that includes too-few of his iconic tunes.

And yet, this towering and teetering collection of deliciously downbeat vignettes and mystically evocative songs manages to worm its way into your mind and heart, leaving you licking your fingers and burping contentedly when the 150-minute show is concluded.

As directed and written by Conor McPherson, the award-winning Irish playwright, Girl drops in on a boarding house on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934. That was perhaps the worst year of the Depression era since, by then, all hope for many had been extinguished. Into that not-so-glorified flophouse come the dregs of society, kind of like a gender-diverse version of the losers in The Iceman Cometh.

The boarding house is run (or run down) by Nick Laine (a strong but properly befuddled John Schiappa), who is staring foreclosure in the eye while dealing with his wife Elizabeth, who suffers from a form of dementia that results in Tourette's Syndrome-like outbursts that emerge from her otherwise catatonic state. It's a juicy role from which Jennifer Blood squeezes every jolt and chuckle.

Their son Gene (Ben Biggers) is an alcoholic, failed writer who has just lost his best girl to another man, and their daughter Marianne (a transportive Sharaé Moultrie) has her own problems as the Black adopted child in a white household.

Several other telling characters orbit around the Laine's nuclear family wasteland, including Nick's boarder and side-fling Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods), who is anticipating a bountiful payout when her dead husband's will clears probate. Also living in this Motel 6 From Hell are the Burkes, a formerly well-to-do family crushed by the Depression who have a mentally-challenged grown son Elias.

As if that's not enough misery for one Broadway show, a couple wastrels show up one stormy night at the inn: Bible huckster Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb) and washed-up boxer Joe Scott (Matt Manuel). They soon grab some floorspace in the joint and proceed to mess with everyone's lives.

Girl doesn't have a plotline so much as a bundle of scenes that illustrate specific characters and their plight of the moment. It's like Forest Gump's box of chocolates was transformed into a box filled with lumps of coal and little shit canapés. Even so, the scenes are engrossing and often carry a wry twist of humor.

Best of all, the scenes are embellished with the lush songs of Bob Dylan, delivered by a cast and a chorus blessed with gorgeous voices. Most of the tunes are B-sides that you've maybe heard once or more likely never. But that doesn't lessen their impact since Dylan, as we know, is the troubadour of troubles and the baron of the blues. And since he grew up in Duluth, he knows a thing or two about being lost in that particular town.

Yes, there are a couple Dylan faves, including " Forever Young," "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." But they have been inventively rearranged by Simon Hale, so you may have to listen close to make sure you don't miss them.

As the characters slowly reveal themselves, and as a classic tragedy for one of the families works its way towards its climax, the ambiance of the production works its spell on you. Scenery flats and photographs appear and vanish, while the Greek chorus of singers shows up behind a scrim or in silhouette to comment on the proceedings. It's as if the characters hopes and dreams are as tenuous and uncertain as the ever-changing stage world they inhabit.

This is not a musical in the usual sense. It's a five-course meal of a play enhanced and elevated by music, packed with fascinating characters and songs that you may not hum but which will reside within you in a whole different way. And that's a theatrical feast you shouldn't miss.

Girl from the North Country
Through November 19 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., playhousesquare.org, 216-241-6000.

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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