It’s not every day Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, declares a whole week to a musical. Then again, it’s not every day a musical featuring the work of Bob Dylan opens.
“Girl from the North Country” is by Irish playwright Conor McPherson and uses the songs of Bob Dylan. The show premiered in London in 2017, then briefly opened on Broadway in 2020; it closed a month later due to COVID and reopened in 2021.
The musical is now beginning a North American tour, starting at the Orpheum in Minneapolis — a theater once owned by Bob Dylan.
“Girl from the North Country,” which takes its title from a Dylan song, explores the interconnected lives of boarding house residents in Duluth facing potential foreclosure during the Great Depression.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
To coincide with the opening, Walz declared Oct. 8-14 “Girl from the North Country Broadway Musical Week.” Additionally, on opening night, Walz delivered a speech from the Orpheum stage on the significance of the arts.
The musical plays on a minimal set that looks like a North Wood’s grandmother’s cabin paired with state-of-the-art projection screens that evoke the power and majesty of Lake Superior.
The show itself is less interested in straightforward storytelling than it is in letting the audience soak up character choices and interweaving narratives.
These include topics like mental health, aging, unplanned pregnancy and racism. “Girl” aims to portray a time in American history characterized by struggle and a tug-of-war between pessimism and optimism.
In a traditional musical, the songs either further the show’s plot or represent a moment filled with such emotion a character has no choice but to sing. In “Girl from the North Country” Dylan’s songs serve as a storytelling device. Characters seemingly pause their lives to present songs reflecting the moment’s essence.
The ensemble cast skillfully sings the songs, honoring Dylan’s music while also adding their unique touch. However, the placement of the music is often jarring and could leave some audience members confused.
In one example, boarding house caretaker Elizabeth Laine, played with both grit and impeccable comedic timing by Jessica Blood, sings “Like a Rolling Stone.” The staging here is sometimes abstract, with cast members playing instruments live on stage and moving to their own beat. This is fascinating to watch but feels like it’s part of a different show.
The musical is narrated by Dr. Walker, a supporting character who pops up now and then to help give context to the story. Alan Ariano commands as Walker, but at times his lines feel a bit too folksy, almost like the narration for a Ken Burns documentary.
The show contains a lot of Minnesota-specific lines. I am curious to see how this will play in other parts of the country. I don’t think it is cause for concern, but some lines will certainly be more memorable for the audience who knows where Burnsville and Brainerd are.
The song choices also raised an eyebrow for this casual Dylan listener. The musical excludes some of his most iconic songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” which felt odd to me.
One of the opening songs uses a derogatory term for Romani people. Considering the musical had access to Dylan’s vast catalog and this song’s minimal contribution to the story, its inclusion felt out of place. Even though the song is a known Dylan track, its presence, given other omissions, seemed like a misstep.
The main issue with “Girl from the North Country” is the whole isn’t as impressive as its individual parts. The designs immerse you in the story, actors’ choices prompt reflection on humanity, and the plot and songs stand out as strong storytelling. When combined, the hopeful message and themes of survival become unclear due to a plot that’s both convoluted and simplistic.
It wasn’t until a few hours removed from the production — and consulting online sources — that the show’s message finally clicked for me. Perhaps the nontraditional structure of the show made the themes go over my head, but the slice-of-life plot kept me from really connecting with any of the characters. This isn’t due to the fault of the performers or McPherson’s script. Rather, I think this show wasn’t meant to adhere to my sensibilities of storytelling.
If you like Bob Dylan or prefer musicals that evoke feelings over a clear plot, “Girl from the North Country” is a tribute to Minnesota and explores survival in uncertain times. The show runs until Saturday, Oct. 14 before moving on to Cincinnati, Ohio.