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Girl From The North Country, Song of the Mermaid

Posted 10/15/18

Girl From the North Country reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

  For many, Bob Dylan is the poet laureate of American longing.

His lyrical expressions of yearning, heartbreak and loss have been recast as a moving off-Broadway musical — Girl From The North Country — at The Public Theater.

Set in 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace, his cannon of hopeful, yet pensive melodies fits seamlessly into the quasi-stoicism of Conor McPherson’s touching script. Using Dylan’s wistful oeuvre, he produces an elegiac show that artfully captures the melancholy of Depression-era Midwesterners. It’s a jukebox musical, but a thoughtful one.

Narrated, in part, by Dr. Walker (Robert Joy), the backdrop is a failing boarding house run by a hapless Nick (Stephen Bogardus) and his wife Elizabeth, exhibiting early signs of dementia (Mare Winningham). Their son Gene (Colton Ryan) is consumed by alcohol and rage, while their adopted black daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl) is 19, partner-less and pregnant. Nick, worried about her future, tries to set her up with Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), an elderly man of dubious character.

In fact, all the boarders are broken in some way, a slice of America battered by a failing economy, unrealized dreams and unexpected pitfalls. Their ache for connection and meaning is palpable. But such promise eludes the denizens of Girl From The North Country.

Set designer Rae Smith makes the most of worn furniture and photo backdrops of the chilly, bleakly beautiful landscape. This mixed collection of souls resembles an Edward Hopper painting: lonely, suffering and often displaced.

Mrs. Nielsen (Jeannette Bayardelle) is waiting on money that like Godot, will never appear. Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt) is a boxer with an angry tale of injustice, while the Burkes, (Marc Kudisch) and (Luba Mason), nurse a private tragedy, their son Elias (Todd Almond).

McPherson utilizes 20 Dylan songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Hurricane” and “I Want You.” Nearly everyone gets a solo, and the voices of Bayardelle, Harcourt and Mason rock the house. So does Winningham; her “Forever Young” is memorable.

What’s impressive is hearing various vocal interpretations of Dylan’s music, accompanied by a five-piece band (including Mason on drums) and period-style orchestrations by Simon Hale that are spot-on. Indeed, McPherson (“The Weir,”) “The Seafarer”) adopts a restrained dramatic style; he lets the music strike the raw emotional chords that define mood and moment.

The big issue is survival — be it with dignity, resignation or as a petty grifter. Circumstance, rather than choice, defines the journey of the dispossessed. Which makes this period — the early 1930s — an ideal setting for Dylan’s music.

McPherson, who smoothly directs, is especially good at staging musical numbers that deliver a show-within-a-show performance. Winningham’s fierceness and childlike dependence is deftly rendered, so is Mason’s familial anguish. The seasoned ensemble paints a portrait of America just steps away from implosion. The show is a tribute to the versatility of Dylan’s work and the power of endurance.

On a more fanciful note, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, first published in 1837, has enjoyed a long artistic life. A beautiful mermaid saves a prince cast overboard in a shipwreck — but the king of the ocean forbids their love. Her desire to surrender her identity to gain a human soul has captivated generations.

The story has been reborn in several mediums, including a Broadway musical and a Disney animated film.

Fans have an added treat in its current incarnation. The K’Arts Ballet of Korea will dance the celebrated fantasy ballet Song of the Mermaid at New York’s City Center, October 20 and 21. The colorful ballet will star Kimin Kim, the first foreign principal dancer of Mariinsky Ballet, as the prince, and feature 40 dancers, inspired costumes, and an original score by Hana Ryou.

SooBin Lee and Seonmee Park of South Korea will share the role of the mermaid. Both dancers have won prestigious awards at top ballet competitions. Lee’s credits include Giselle and Swan Lake, while Park is the first Korean to win an award at the renowned Moscow International Ballet Competition. — Fern Siegel