Canada Review: "Girl from the North Country" at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Bob Dylan’s music as a full-fledged musical?  Well, if ‘Mamma Mia’ and ABBA can wow audiences, why not take a chance? My guest and I had no idea what to expect with ‘Girl from the North Country’ which recently had its Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre and runs until November 24. The current off-Broadway cast of ‘Girl’ will transfer to the Great White Way in February 2020. This Canadian premiere cast also played in London’s West End.

Future audiences may want to avail themselves of the programme information before the production begins either online through www.mirvish.com or before showtime for important background information.  In the programme, Nick Curtis interviewed Conor McPherson, the writer and director of ‘Girl’. Initially, Mr. McPherson dismissed the idea as he didn’t think of Bob Dylan as a “musical’s musician”.  Later, McPherson describes his flash of an idea about creating a “play in a guesthouse in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, and set in the Depression-riven early 1930s, some years before his birth in 1941. This premise would FREE THE SONGS from the burden of relevance for our generation and make them timeless.”

Is this current Canadian production worth a look according to McPherson’s premise? Yes, it most certainly is. Why? This wonderful company exhibits true ensemble performance perfection for the stirring and vocally outstanding musical renditions of Dylan’s songs. Some plot elements need to be fleshed out a bit further as it’s a large nineteen-member cast, and some of the backstories need either closure or further addressing.

From my seat, it looked as if the guesthouse setting uses silhouette light on a raked stage. I could see a piano down stage right and drums down stage left. There are musical instruments centre stage. The orchestra/band also sits up stage right. The guesthouse becomes the gathering place for all members and transients. We see examples of racism and economic Depression woes within the guesthouse.

The guesthouse is owned by Nick Laine (Donald Sage MacKay) and his wife, Elizabeth (a phenomenal performance of character depth by Katie Brayben) who has dementia. The disease affects Elizabeth in such a way that she has no problem saying whatever is on her mind and doesn’t consider the effects. Ms. Brayben has a powerhouse singing voice that resonated right through the auditorium. The Laine’s son, Gene (Colin Bates) is a drunken, would be writer. Nick and Elizabeth have adopted a black daughter, Marianne (an exquisite Gloria Obianyo) who is pregnant and has no significant other. Guests of the guesthouse include Mrs. Neilsen (Rachel John) a widow with whom Nick has an affair.

We also meet Mr. and Mrs. Burke (David Ganly and Anna-Jane Casey), a couple who appear to be mismatched in personality and demeanor along with their special needs’ son, Elias (a moving performance by Steffan Harri) who has the mental age of four. Additionally, we also meet transient boxer, Joe Scott (solid work from Shaq Taylor) who was unjustly imprisoned and bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Finbar Lynch) who represents God and the devil in McPherson’s estimation.

The structure of the play is not the typical musical structure. The story is played out before the audience; however, a song between two people would not be sung to each other nor would one person voice his/her thoughts aloud. Instead, the actor(s) step forward and sing into a microphone, and it appears as if we are watching a radio play before us. Clever staging, but it took a few moments for me to buy into this technique. Where this technique worked marvellously was in many of the full company numbers. Powerful staging by Mr. McPherson as director which was further enhanced through haunting tableaux.

There are other top-notch performance moments to remember throughout the play. Anna-James Casey’s Mrs. Burke is a smouldering woman who is passionate about seeking so much more out from her mundane life and marriage to her husband that she flirts quite a bit with dangerous elements. Her crash and burn in the second act are heart wrenching. Gloria Obianyo’s Marianne commands the stage each time she appears. Her silent pauses and looks to others say so much without saying anything at all.

Final Comments: ‘Girl from the North Country’ is a sombre reminder of the fragility of human life. As I watched this opening matinee performance, I was reminded of the setting of many of John Steinbeck’s Depression era novels ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ to ‘Of Mice and Men’. People enter our lives for a reason and stay for awhile.  They may stay or they may go, but they bring either sadness, tragedy or hope. Very harsh lessons to learn, but it is all part of the human condition.

This opening matinee production cuts right to the heart of the human condition. I didn’t listen to a great deal of Bob Dylan’s songs in my youth, but I left the production having learned more about the intricacies of human behaviour.

‘Girl from the North Country’ runs to November 24 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto.  For tickets, call 1-416-872-1212 or visit www.mirvish.com.

Production runs approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Photo of Katie Brayben, Shak Taylor and the cast of ‘Girl from the North Country’ Toronto/London Company Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, 2019.

Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan; Written and Directed by Conor McPherson; Movement Director by Lucy Hind; Musical Director by Ian Ross; Lighting Designer by Mark Henderson; Sound Designer by Simon Barker; Designed by Rae Smith.