NEW YORK – Broadway’s new Bob Dylan musical, “Girl From the North Country,” takes place in a boardinghouse in Duluth in late 1934 but don’t let the specific setting fool you into expecting realism. For one thing, the characters are singing these songs seven years before the man who wrote them was even born.
Conor McPherson, the “Shining City” playwright who wrote and directed, achieves something much richer and weirder than realism with “Girl,” which shifts between a profane “Our Town”-like look at a disparate group of people trying to survive the Depression and performances of at least 22 Dylan songs that emerge from the story in unexpected ways.
Two examples that stick way out: A neuroatypical man who can’t connect with other people (Todd Almond, who has some of the skewed angularity of David Byrne) transforms into a fiery preacher in a revival tent, ripping through a harmonica solo and leading the cast in a rousing gospel version of “Duquesne Whistle” (the most recent song in the show, from 2012). And a middle-aged woman with dementia (Mare Winningham) grabs an old-timey microphone to launch into a passionate “Like a Rolling Stone” that becomes a goodbye wave to a life that passed her by.
Another signpost: The title song (the oldest in the show, from 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”) is here but you could completely miss it as it’s whispered by a group of women in the background of a dialogue scene.
This is no jukebox musical, plopping well-known tunes into a megamix. Having found more interesting ways to weave an existing song catalog into a theater piece, McPherson joins a wave of intimate shows, also including “Once” and non-jukebox pieces “Fun Home” and “The Band’s Visit,” that reject the glitz and artifice of traditional Broadway musicals to go for something deeper.
Here, when the characters shift to singing mode, it’s almost like they’re imagining themselves into a Minnesota version of the Grand Ole Opry, where melodies reveal their longing to escape, the secrets they hide from loved ones or their dreams of what their lives could be. The songs are the characters’ purest expressions of themselves, and a big clue to how they are used is the boardinghouse’s owner (Jay O. Sanders, much more comfortably cast than as “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Guthrie last year). He says he has no soul, which is why he’s the only person we don’t hear sing.
“Girl From the North Country” is much more about character than narrative, but there is a story, set against painted backdrops of Lake Superior and a row of houses on the hill: Nick (Sanders) is struggling to keep his hostel afloat when two menacing drifters appear, his daughter announces she is pregnant and his lover (Jeannette Bayardelle) drops hints that it’s time for him to leave his wife (Winningham).
Orchestrator Simon Hale’s arrangements lean toward the choir, which helps differentiate them from the originals, although one of Dylan’s full-on gospel numbers, “Pressing On,” is used as an encore. And nobody in the cast tries to duplicate the Hibbing native’s distinctive voice as they tackle a mix of hits (“Make You Feel My Love,” “Forever Young,” “I Want You,” transformed into two lovers’ internal monologues) and deep cuts (“Went to See the Gypsy,” “True Love Tends to Forget”).
Long story short: If Broadway is determined to crank out shows that repurpose songs ticket buyers already know, this is the way to do it. (The way not to do it, reportedly, was the 2006 bomb, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which crammed some of these numbers into a jukebox dance musical.)
The songs aren’t literal in “Girl From the North Country” and some will take issue with the way “Hurricane,” a protest anthem about the imprisonment of boxer Rubin Carter, becomes a tune for a Thanksgiving party. But removed from their original contexts, the show’s songs respect the ambiguity of Dylan’s work. They become poetic expressions of the hopes and dreams of the two dozen souls on stage.
The production never duplicates the original intent of Dylan, but it respects his career-long desire to look deeply at the ordinary and find something extraordinary. As the Nobel Prize winner’s songs reveal the innermost longings of these people, it’s like they’re heeding the call of one of the Bard of Hibbing’s most famous lines: “Tell me, how does it feel?”