Completely Transports You Back in Time
Theatre Royal Sydney, Sydney
Reviewed by Yvette Guldur
Everything about Girl from the North Country completely transports you back to the gloomy, bitterly ice-cold winter of 1934. In a shabby, Minnesota guesthouse operated by Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz), a number of characters gather who are all grappling with loneliness, disillusionment, personal woes and adversity.
The Great Depression was very real and filling lives with deep sorrow and crippling hardship, leaving them hopelessly vulnerable, lost and uncertain about their lives and future.
Each character’s life story – their past and present circumstances – was more desolate and bleak that the next.
In opposition to the storylines of most musicals that are jam packed with endless song and movement, Girl from the North Country has more of grim focus, following the characters’ individual misfortunes, misery, and hardship. Creator, Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer), has cleverly added moments of song throughout the show from Bob Dylan’s more unknown repertoire, expertly supporting and enhancing the narrative rather than taking over the scenes. However, there are moments of disconnect between the narrative and musical accompaniment. One obvious mismatched song moment is when Gene (James Smith) is having his heart broken by Katherine (Elizabeth Hay) after the realisation that the girl he has fallen for, and wants so desperately to be his girlfriend, has now officially dedicated her love to another man, They sing a duo ‘I Want You’, which didn’t quite fit with the moment and the song’s theme.
The entire show feels much more like you are watching live theatre filled with very impressive but long interludes of dialogue and storytelling. At times it is easy to forget you’re actually watching a musical until the cast break into a song and gentle dance sequences of this era.
There is so much pain and hopelessness in this story, but just when you think the anguish can’t get worse, McPherson manages to weave even more tragedy into the fabric of the storyline. Financial despair, prejudice, death, severe mental health issues, inappropriate relationship choices, alcoholism, domestic violence, and unexplained pregnancy are just a few of the delightful disasters interwoven. Interestingly, the narrative then takes a comical turn and the audience erupt in laughter with very clever one-liners perfectly delivered to lighten the mood.
That’s what is different and quite unique about this musical. It is more of a drama with an intense storyline, with music, song and dance added at moments throughout. The production really came alive when the entire cast sang in perfect harmony together. These moments were the absolute highlight and we could have enjoyed more of these as they really showcased the incredible talent and brilliant vocal range from the entire cast.
Joe Scott (Callum Francis) and Marianne Laine (Zahra Newman) were definitely stand-outs. They truly embodied every part of their characters and brought brilliant musicality to their performances with incredible, flawless voices. Marianne, the adopted African American daughter of Nick (Peter Kowitz) and Elizabeth (Lisa McCune), is so captivating and has the voice of an angel which is impressively powerful. Her rendition of “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” was so full of emotion – so beautifully and perfectly executed – and was felt in every single seat of the theatre.
Joe, recently out of jail and subjected to severe racism is trying to find a new path in life. He has an incredibly smooth, pitch-perfect tone, and Callum Francis was an excellent choice for this role. We can’t help but fall in love with this character. The chemistry between Joe and Marianne was tangible from the start and grew throughout the entire performance.
Elizabeth Laine (Lisa McCune) is Nick’s wife who experiences severe mental health challenges. McCune is phenomenal from beginning to end, staying perfectly in character every second. She showcased her very impressive vocals, changing genres with each song she sang. Her character is mentally fragile and challenged yet filled with incredible humour. The audience erupts in laughter with her frank, witty, brash, cheeky, hilarious and very direct one-liners which lightened the heavy narrative at perfect times.
Lisa McCune’s phenomenal acting experience, professionalism and ability was very visible in her portrayal of this character and she definitely treats the audience to some of the best in this show. She was perfectly cast for this role.
Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz), is the desperate owner of the miserably failing guesthouse with more problems and adversity thrown at him at every turn. Kowitz really anchors the story in an extraordinary and outstanding way. His huge dialogue and portrayal as Nick is executed brilliantly throughout the entire show.
Mrs Neilson (Christina O’Neill) who constantly makes inappropriate advances on married Nick, is waiting desperately for her inheritance from her widowed husband and consumed with anxiety that his debt will leave her bankrupt. O’Neill showcases her incredible vocal range full of passion, reminding us that we are in fact watching a musical.
Mr & Mrs Burke (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore) lost their entire livelihood in these traumatic economic times and are now desperately trying to find work, parents of Elias (Blake Erickson) who is intellectually disabled and later mysteriously dies. Helen is vocally outstanding and the performances from this family are fantastic and engaging.
Dr Walker (Terence Crawford) was brilliant at being a narrator figure and story teller, jumping in to make sense of the story line when things got a little confusing to the audience trying to make sense of what was happening and who was who. He is appealing, compelling and mesmerising to listen to as he spoke with calmness and focus.
Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro) as a former boxer now the shadiest, most untrustworthy bible salesman is hilarious as he tries to make a buck at every turn from everyone that catches his eye by flashing his bible in their face and filling them up with his dubious wisdom.
Mr Perry (Peter Carroll), is an elderly man who Nick hopes will marry his much younger adopted and pregnant daughter Marianne. Carroll is awesome bringing Mr Perry’s rather dark character to life with a very comical undertone and obvious presence.
The staging is designed to replicate an old, dark, stuffy, gloomy guesthouse but it was probably too dark, looking very over crowded especially when entire cast was on stage. The lighting was obviously meant to reflect the bleak atmosphere and mood of the hard times they were living in but it was very hard to see facial expressions at times.
The band performed outstandingly but were stuffed at the back of the stage in a tiny dark corner. A random drum-set sits right at the front of the stage which looks a little out-of-place and, at times, was a little loud (over the female vocal harmonies). However when Mrs Burke belted out her song while impressively playing the drums, she did not miss a single note either vocally or instrumentally.
Generally, after certain stellar performances within shows, there are usually moments to applaud – especially when rightfully deserved. This was missing in this production. There was no time or it felt inappropriate to disrupt the show even for a moment for an applause, so this made the audience very hesitant to express their approval and praise by clapping as it would have interrupted the next scene or song that started immediately with no moments in between.
The show highlights were definitely when the entire cast sang together – their harmonies were truly phenomenal, showcasing the huge amount of talent within the entire cast. Elizabeth’s final dialogue and the finale song of the show was absolutely beautiful. To hear the entire cast singing so perfect together was a great way to end the show on a high.
Girl From the North Country – Sydney Run Extended
International hit musical Girl from the North Country, by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, has announced that it will extend its season at Theatre Royal Sydney a further three weeks, from Tuesday 1 March until Saturday 19 March, with tickets on sale now.
Girl From the North Country is one of the most critically acclaimed, multi award-winning productions of the 21st century. It has taken the theatrical world by storm, selling out seasons in the West End, Toronto and Broadway since opening at The Old Vic in London. A story of American life in 1934 Minnesota, it centres on a community living on a knife-edge in the local guesthouse, and features over 20 of Dylan’s songs including Hurricane, I Want You, Slow Train Coming, You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Like A Rolling Stone, beautifully reimagined and woven through the story.
“Magically speaks to the soul” – The Australian
“[Lisa McCune] A towering performance” – Sydney Morning Herald
“A gorgeous poignant piece” – Limelight
In an interview with the New York Times, Bob Dylan confirmed that he has seen the new musical The Girl from the North Country: “I saw it as an anonymous spectator, not as someone who had anything to do with it,” Dylan told the Times. “I just let it happen. The play had me crying at the end. I can’t even say why. When the curtain came down, I was stunned. I really was.”
After finishing its Sydney season on 19 March, Girl From the North Country tours to Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide from 25 March and the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne from 29 April.