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Review: Melancholic beauty of ‘Girl from the North Country’ at the Pantages


Sharaé Moultrie (Marianne Laine) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

It’s a dark Minnesota winter in 1934, during the Depression. Several souls shelter in a guesthouse around Thanksgiving, their deep longings and tentative hopes intermingling for a few days before going on their ways.

 

Binding these travelers together in writer and director Conor McPherson’s “Girl from the North Country” – continuing at the Hollywood Pantages through June 2 – are Bob Dylan’s soulful tunes hauntingly arranged by Simon Hale for on-stage piano, bass, guitar, violin, mandolin and drums, with lyrics given new resonances by a vocally stellar cast.

Ensemble cast of "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Choreography by Lucy Hind has the ensemble moving in harmony with the songs, so that each of the more than 20 Dylan numbers poetically coheres, both aurally and visually. Dim lighting (designed by Mark Henderson) on a dark stage with scenic video projection (set and costumes fittingly designed by Rae Smith) further help make “Girl from the North Country” a study in mood.

 

With a soulfulness reminiscent of Anaïs Mitchell’s mythic musical “Hadestown” and melancholic tone recalling James Joyce’s “The Dead” – in which snow falls faintly and generally “upon all the living and the dead” –  the story here is the ensemble’s.

John Schiappa (Nick Laine) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Nick Laine (John Schiappa) rents out rooms in his home to support his mentally fragile wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood), alcoholic writer son Gene (Ben Biggers) and adopted daughter Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie) – a Black girl in a white world who is also mysteriously pregnant.


Dr. Walker (Alan Ariano) provides Elizabeth medicine for her dementia-like condition and also periodically narrates the tale at a stand-up microphone, setting a somber tone in describing the time and place and what is going on.

From left: Carla Woods (Mrs. Neilsen) and Jill Van Velzer (Mrs. Burke) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Among the guesthouse boarders are Mrs. Neilsen (Carla Woods), who is clearly having an affair with Nick and dreams of opening a hotel with him, and a formerly rich family – Mr. Burke (David Benoit), Mrs. Burke (Jill Van Velzer) and their special-needs son Elias (Aidan Wharton), who may or may not have attacked a girl before they arrived.

From left: Sharaé Moultrie (Marianne Laine) and Matt Manuel (Joe Scott) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Hunky Joe Scott (Matt Manuel) and smooth-talking “Reverend” Marlowe (Jeremy Webb) – who really just peddles bibles – tumble in late one night during a snowstorm, cold and in need of a place to sleep.

Jeremy Webb (Reverend Marlowe) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

As these distinct characters interact, it becomes apparent that each is lonely in their own way, wanting love, belonging, understanding and hope, as we all do, feelings highlighted through Dylan’s grittily real, existential songs.

From left: Aidan Wharton, David Benoit, Jennifer Blood and Jeremy Webb in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Taken from Dylan’s albums between 1963 (“Girl from the North Country” from Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) and 2012 (“Duquesne Whistle” from Tempest), the rearranged tunes – performed as harmonized ensemble numbers – speak from the heart of longing, self-doubt and life experiences both painful and beautiful.


A highlight is Blood’s soaring lead of “Like a Rolling Stone” (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965) with the most pregnant of pauses and wrenchingly honest deliveries. As she sings, disco balls emerge over the stage and audience, casting pinpoints of light over all (like Joyce’s snow).

Jennifer Blood (Elizabeth Laine) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

All the songs are similarly resonant, thanks to the cast’s uniformly excellent voices and astonishing ability to immerse themselves emotionally in their roles. “I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde, 1966), “Make You Feel My Love” (Time Out of Mind, 1997) and “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks, 1975) are just a few that express the characters’ feelings that they can’t convey to each other except in glimpses.


Mrs. Burke tentatively asks Dr. Walker during Nick’s Thanksgiving dinner party what might happen if she came to his house; Gene lets go his love Kate (Chiara Trentalange) when she says she is leaving to get married, though it’s clear they want to be together.

From left: Chiara Trentalange (Kate Draper) and Ben Bigger (Gene Laine) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

With all the poignancy there is also humor and humanity. Mr. Perry (Jay Russell), a bouquet-wielding old widower who wants to marry Marianne to give her a home and legitimacy, is hilariously creepy in his overtures, yet ultimately sad in his loneliness.

Aidan Wharton (Elias Burke, foreground) in "Girl from the North Country" at Hollywood Pantages (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

One emerges from “Girl from the North Country” having had one’s soul touched by the characters and music, reminded that loneliness is so much about what one doesn’t say, and – as in the gospel-infused “Pressing On” (Saved, 1980), gorgeously delivered by the cast – there is always a way forward, if not always hope.

 

“Girl from the North Country” continues at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, through June 2, with shows Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $22 can be purchased by calling the box office at (866) 755-2929 or visiting BroadwayinHollywood.com. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.

 

 

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