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REVIEW: Bob Dylan's music comments on Depression-era story

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NEW YORK -- You can’t really call “Girl From the North Country” a jukebox musical, even though it features more than a dozen Bob Dylan songs.

Set in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934, it’s more like a collision of ideas – Dylan’s mood setters and writer/director Conor McPherson’s Depression drama. They work well together, even though many of McPherson’s site-specific references seem like they come from a Google search.

The tension plays out in a boarding house that’s about to go under. The owners, Nick and Elizabeth Laine (Jay O. Sanders and Mare Winningham), don’t have enough money to stay afloat during difficult times; boarders are all but out the door.

One of them, Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), is expecting a windfall and will go as soon as it comes through. Never mind that she’s sleeping with Nick. Elizabeth suffers from a form of dementia and, in a sense, has checked out. The Laines’ daughter, Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), is pregnant and unlikely to find her own exit strategy unless someone appears with a miracle.

Enter: a minister (Matt McGrath) and a boxer (Austin Scott) who hasn’t been out of prison very long.

Others drift in and out long enough for a meal or an impromptu jam session but this is really a story of survival and how participants manage.

While Dylan’s songs convey the characters’ feelings, it’s really McPherson’s story structure that makes it work. It’s as if he wrote his story, then searched through Dylan’s vast catalog to flesh it out. Because those songs (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “Jokerman” among them) are given new arrangements by Simon Hale, they sound nothing like you remember hearing. The performances are just as unique. Winningham owns “Like a Rolling Stone”; Bayardelle makes “Went to See the Gypsy” resonate. Some numbers are done as group efforts, arranged around microphones you might find on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” Others feature actors on various instruments.

It's an interesting experiment, particularly since the story has so many twists and turns. But much of “Girl” is very depressing – hardly the stuff of a Broadway musical. McPherson’s handle on the region is sketchy as well, particularly since folks we know from Minnesota wouldn’t sound or act much like this.

Think of “Grapes of Wrath” and you’ll get a more accurate picture. The location is largely just a hat tip to Dylan.

Still, that doesn’t prevent good performances from emerging. Winningham and Sanders are quite touching; Sprawl is just one good song away from owning the show’s soul. She leaves an impression with “Tight Connection to My Heart” but another standout turn would provide more focus. As is, Bayardelle and Winningham get the moments that prompt chills. When the latter takes on “Forever Young,” the marriage of song and story works.

Because it’s played out on a spartan stage with limited movement, “Girl of the North Country” seems more like the kind of show you’d find at the Guthrie Theater, not Broadway. It works, but not where you think it should.

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