Jukebox musicals are a very popular and recent musical theatre phenomenon, and a new one arrived in the Grand Opera House this week. Girl From The North Country features music by Bob Dylan, but it’s different than the rest of the jukebox musicals I’ve seen.
Taking place in Duluth, Minnesota, the birthplace of Bob Dylan, this isn’t an ordinary musical. It’s set in a guest house in the 1930’s, years before the musicians birth in 1941. It’s not a joyous uplifting musical, but one that includes dementia, racism, mental health issues, alcoholism and adultery.
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, the musicals journey started in 2013 when Dylan’s record company contacted him to ask if he’d consider a theatre show using the icon’s music. He had the freedom to select any song from 40 Dylan albums and use them in any way he liked.
The result of that, Girl From The North Country is currently touring the UK after highly praised runs in London and New York beginning in 2017.
The beautifully reimagined Bob Dylan songs are interwoven into the storyline, often performed directly to the audience rather than to each other on stage; songs carefully chosen from each decade of his career. You could sometimes hear members of the audience quietly humming or singing along to them. The folk and gospel musical styles were a joy to listen to, and I’m not even a Dylan fan.
The cast were phenomenal in each role, particularly Frances McNamee as Elizabeth Laine and her portrayal of dementia, she was mesmerising. And when they sang both as an ensemble or solo, stunning and beautiful.
The set was constantly evolving and changing, blink and you’d miss a seamless transition, you’ll spot something that you don’t remember noticing before, and then it changes again.
This might come under the genre of a jukebox musical, but it’s more than that, it’s a really great piece of theatre with some great songs; so well written that it might also work without the music.
An intense, dark and mesmerising night of powerful theatre with the added bonus of reimagined Dylan songs.
See it if you can.
Grand Opera House, Belfast