Bob Dylan Goes to Broadway in ‘Girl From the North Country’: Review

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When Bob Dylan saw Girl from the North Country on Broadway right before the pandemic temporarily closed the show, he was bowled over by the performance, which draws all its music from his catalog. “The play had me crying at the end,” he told journalist Douglas Brinkley in a New York Times interview last year. “When the curtain came down, I was stunned. Too bad Broadway shut it down because I wanted to see it again.”

You don’t have to see Girl from the North Country yourself to understand what must have been one big reason for his enthusiasm; just listen to the newly available studio-recorded cast album. The vocal performances by the show’s cast, which is dominated by people who are either little-known or known primarily as actors, are superb without exception. So are the musicians (who use only instruments that were available in the 1930s, the time when the play is set). Finally, the arrangements and orchestrations by British composer and musician Simon Hale (working with Irish show director Conor McPherson) are uniformly brilliant. Many of them represent radical departures from Dylan’s originals, yet they manage to reflect the spirit of his recordings while adding major new shades of meaning and emotion.

[The production, with most of its original cast, returns Oct. 13, 2021, to the Belasco Theatre. Tickets are available here.]

Related: Bruce Springsteen is back on Broadway–what did the critics say?

Even casual Dylan fans will be familiar with at least some of the inspired song selections. Highway 61 Revisited‘s “Like a Rolling Stone” is here, for example, as are Desire’s “Hurricane,” which Dylan wrote with Jacques Levy, Nashville Skyline’s “Lay, Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”; and such often-covered numbers as the title track, which first appeared on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; “Forever Young,” from Planet Waves; “All Along the Watchtower,” from John Wesley Harding; “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” from The Basement Tapes; and “Make You Feel My Love,” from Time Out of Mind.

But the program also embraces lesser-known compositions, including two from Saved (“What Can I Do for You?” and “Pressing On”) and three from the seriously underrated Street-Legal (“True Love Tends to Forget,” “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and “Is Your Love in Vain?”). Also here are “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy,” both from New Morning, another under-appreciated album and one that Dylan originally wrote for an off-Broadway play. (The songs ultimately didn’t find their way into that show.)

Rounding out the program are Empire Burlesque’s “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)”; Slow Train Coming’s “Slow Train,” Blonde on Blonde’s “I Want You,” Highway 61 Revisited’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”; “Blind Willie McTell,” from The Bootleg Series Vols. 1–3; “Jokerman,” “Sweetheart Like You,” and “License to Kill” from Infidels; “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks; and Tempest’s “Duquesne Whistle,” which Dylan wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

You might wonder how director McPherson managed to insert some of the cast album’s more topical numbers, such as “Hurricane,” into a play set in a Duluth, Minnesota, guesthouse in 1934. As he says in the liner notes, he “realized that Bob Dylan’s lyrics were so universal, you could almost use them anywhere. It seemed to me that any character in any play could turn to the audience and start singing a Bob Dylan song—and it would somehow make sense.” You’ll likely see what he means after listening to this soundtrack—and you’ll also understand how the cast can pull off some of the improbable pairings in its medleys, such as the one that weds “Hurricane,” “All Along the Watchtower, and “Idiot Wind” and the one that melds “Lay, Lady, Lay” to “Jokerman.”

In any case, these recordings are a revelation—some of the best cover versions ever of songs by a writer who has previously been covered ad infinitum. Among the many high points: a slowed-down “I Want You,” a duet by Colton Ryan and Caitlin Houlahan that puts much more emphasis on passion than did the Blonde on Blonde original; a joyous version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”; and Kimber Elayne Sprawl’s “Idiot Wind,” which is more mournful and less mean-spirited than Dylan’s reading. And, oh my, you’ve got to hear Todd Almond’s head-turning acapella opening to “Duquesne Whistle.”

Good luck trying to pick a favorite among this cast album’s 22 selections. Girl from the North Country delivers a thoroughly magical hour of music, one that will leave you in awe of the performers and the show’s creators. Should you somehow need a reminder of just how monumental a songwriter Dylan is, this album will deliver that, too.

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