Theater Review: Touring “Girl From the North Country” – A Slow, Serious Musical set to the Bob Dylan Catalog

By Bob Abelman

Bob Dylan’s music has rarely been more heartbreaking, his poetic storytelling rarely more beguiling, and the singing never less nasal.

Girl From the North Country by Conor McPherson. Directed by Conor McPherson. On tour at Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St., Boston, through March 24.

Chiara Trentalange as Kate Draper and Ben Biggers as Gene Laine in the touring production of Girl From the North Country at Emerson Colonial Theatre. Photo: Evan Zimmerman.

By 1965, Bob Dylan was the leading songwriter of the American folk music revival. The response to his albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin’ and his featured performances at the Newport Folk Festival led to the media labeling him the “voice of his generation.” But, according to Elijah Wald in Time magazine, on the evening of July 25, 1965, the musician took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in black jeans, black boots, and a black leather jacket, carrying a Fender Stratocaster in place of his familiar acoustic guitar. “Over the loudest music ever to hit Newport,” noted Wald, “he snarled his opening line: ‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more!’”

The New York Times reported that Dylan was roundly booed by folk-song purists, who considered this innovation “the worst sort of heresy.”

If some diehard folk fans haven’t yet forgiven Dylan for his sins, perhaps they’ll forget all about them after hearing over 20 of his legendary tunes in the spellbinding production of Girl From the North Country — a show that made its Broadway debut in 2020 and went on national tour in late 2023.

Forgetfulness may be particularly difficult for those who attended the Dylan concert at the Orpheum Theater last November, where the musician not only radically reinvented the old songs we love but played very few of them. Instead, wrote Arts Fuse music critic Scott McLennan, Dylan “focused on material from his last album, 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.” In Girl From the North Country, Dylan’s catalog of old tunes is well represented and his music has rarely been more heartbreaking, his poetic lyrics rarely been beguiling, and the singing — performed by a sizable ensemble of Broadway veterans with an incredible ear for complex harmony — has never been less nasal.

Members of the ensemble of the touring Girl From the North Country at Emerson Colonial
Theatre. Photo: Evan Zimmerman.

Master storyteller Conor McPherson’s (The Weir, St. Nicholas, The Seafarer, Shining City) Tony Award-winning musical is about the wayward residents of a seedy boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, at the height of the Depression in 1934. It creatively explores the ways in which their lives intersect, diverge, and change through their chance meetings. There is a slow-moving, stone-cold serious play supporting the score, and there are moments that can’t help but evoke powerful images from like-minded classic plays.

A local physician, Dr. Walker (endearingly portrayed by Alan Ariano with the same all-knowing tone as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), serves as the fourth-wall-breaking narrator who introduces us to a cast of fully fleshed but worn-down characters straight out of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. We meet the Laines, who run the guesthouse. There’s Nick (John Schiappa), the long-suffering, financially struggling husband of Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood), who is impaired by early-onset dementia. He is father to two young adults, Gene (Ben Biggers), a struggling writer on the verge of losing his girlfriend, Kate Draper (Chiara Trentalange), and the adopted Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie), who is pregnant, unmarried, and unsure about what her future holds. She is also Black while the other Laines are not.

Local townsfolk stop by, as do broken and alienated guests — including the tragic Burkes (David Benoit, Jill Van Velzer, Aidan Wharton), but the play’s tone shifts significantly when two strangers arrive on the scene. The Reverend Marlowe (Jeremy Webb), a Bible salesman, ushers in an air of danger and decay, while Joe Scott (Matt Manuel), a wronged boxer who has faced the perils of racism, brings a surprising sense of hope and possibility. Collectively, these characters generate similar pathos as the failed, falling, and forgotten folks in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, another tale of no-hopers occupying a space but experiencing few prospects.

Girl From the North Country is tethered to and weaves its way around just over 20 of Dylan’s legendary tunes that have been theatrically reenvisioned by McPherson (who also directs) and movement director Lucy Hind. The songs are given haunting rearrangements by Simon Hale that are performed by a handful of musicians on stage. Spoiler Alert: There is not an electric guitar in sight.

The songs don’t so much advance the plot as establish the play’s underlying sense of loneliness and longing. In fact, many, like “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle,” feel as if they were written in direct response to the Great Depression, but were not. Some songs are a good fit for the specific dramatic situations they accompany — in particular, Blood’s heartbreaking rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Moultrie’s gorgeous rendering of “Tight Connection to My Heart,” and Carla Woods as the widowed Mrs. Neilsen’s stunning “Went to See the Gypsy.” Others help tell the story of the person singing them. But only partially. We learn little about these characters’ pasts, as if the onslaught of the Great Depression defines them.

Scenic designer Rae Smith’s sparse wooden furniture, translucent scenery that drops from the ceiling, rear projections, and period-appropriate, color-faded costuming beautifully establish time and place. All this is masterfully reinforced by Mark Henderson’s melancholic lighting design.

Slow, sober, and serious define this production. Lighter fare can easily be found in Broadway in Boston’s other offerings.

Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. He covers the Providence theater scene for the Boston Globe.


  1. Judie Amsel on March 15, 2024 at 2:46 pm

    We saw a couple months ago at Playhouse Square. Joe Garry’s Broadway Buzz beforehand was really helpful. He compared to Greek theater so we were prepared for not seeing a jukebox show.

    A lot of people did leave at intermission, probably never having listened to the Buzz.

    Bruce and I thought it was great.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying your wandering. The audiences are great to have you.

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