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Theater Review (NYC): ‘Girl from the North Country’ by Conor McPherson, Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan

Girl From The North Country, Bob Dylan, Conor McPherson, Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Stephen Bogardus, Sydney James Harcourt, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, and Mare Winningham

‘Girl From The North Country,’ Written and Directed by Conor McPherson, Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan, Featuring Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Stephen Bogardus, Sydney James Harcourt, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, and Mare Winningham (Joan Marcus)

I cannot imagine any writer but Conor McPherson effectively providing such a dramatic flight path to Bob Dylan’s repertoire. The playwright’s eerie, atmospheric writing effectively implies connections between the material at hand and otherworldly realms. Dylan’s titular song is part of the hybrid McPherson musical Girl from the North Country, which is part song cycle, part winsome and effusive-with-longing memory play. Extended, the production currently runs at The Public Theater until 23 December.

Indeed, in this musical, which the playwright also directed, McPherson’s writing and Dylan’s songs have reached an apotheosis of sorts. Their collaboration is a fascinating meld. And their works morph like sand under the tremendous heat and pressure of sadness, fear, and desperation to depict a desperate time in 1934. The result when cooled becomes a glass through which we see clearly the emotional and spiritual impact of longing, desiccated dreams, the desolation of impoverishment, unfulfilled love and loss.

Girl From The North Country, Conor McPherson, Bob Dylan,Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Stephen Bogardus, Sydney James Harcourt, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, and Mare Winningham

‘Girl From The North Country,’ written and directed by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. Featuring Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Stephen Bogardus, Sydney James Harcourt, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, and Mare Winningham (Joan Marcus)

We recognize that that era is like our current one. Thus, these elements in the characters’ songs and word-arias become empathetic fragments. And in them we find threads familiar from our own lives meshing with the raw, explicit rendering of soul-weakened characters who “can’t catch a break.”

McPherson, the seminal Irish playwright of the haunting Shining City, The Weir, and The Seafarer, always exposes the spiritual elements present in our midst, whether we want to acknowledge them or not. For his part, Dylan for over 50 years has entertained and moved us with poetic evocations of life’s gritty and hope-inspired underbelly. Indeed, his brilliance manifests in his reverse chameleon-like morphology. Incrementally, he started trends, then left them to form others after musician admirers saturated the field with imitations. Always fresh, insightful, wise, Dylan has become a treasured cultural prophet and minstrel wandering through the times of our lives.

Over the decades he has proven himself more than a masterful tunesmith, though the Nobel Prize Committee bestowed its award for his songwriting. His word-craft and storytelling ballads remain unique and particular to Dylan. He has shepherded us through repeated social crises and cultural transformations. But Dylan stayed true to himself. He adhered only to the shifting currents within, despite the outward tug of his fans’ pressure to keep doing the same stuff.

Jeannette Bayardelle,Girl From The North Country, Conor McPherson, Bob Dylan

Jeannette Bayardelle in ‘Girl From The North Country,’ written and directed by Conor McPherson, songs by Bob Dylan (Joan Marcus)

Jeannette Bayardelle in ‘Girl From The North Country,’ written and directed by Conor McPherson, songs by Bob Dylan (Joan Marcus)

Together McPherson and Dylan achieve a new boldness and resonance. Surely, that remains one reason why this stellar production at the Public inspires and rises to an extraordinary level. This abides especially because of the striking voices of the cast. It also comes from the stunning portrayals that echo characters from John Steinbeck’s Depression-era short stories and novels. Mare Winningham’s depiction of Elizabeth Laine is just gobsmacking.

Thus, the memorable fusion of two greats illuminates like starlight. Indeed, the production may guide the way for future collaborations by others of like kin. McPherson’s and Dylan’s first time out of the gate wins with grace, humor, delight, and poignancy. Its rich fullness bears seeing more than once. For you may miss the book’s subtle themes intermingled with the parallel thematic thrust of Dylan’s songs. Gleaning how the show subtly weaves the songs into the characterizations and story development pleasantly startles. Dylan’s “Sign on the Window” and “You Aint Goin’ Nowhere” exemplify the characters’ ironic, spiritual situations, for example.

In all of McPherson’s works, spirits materialize. Sometimes, devils manifest, including a few “Christian” human devils. Some leave once they have moved humanity to act. Other spirits continue to haunt his characters with surreal guilt. In Girl From the North Country, a sister’s horrific end floats in the consciousness of Nick Laine, a fact Dr. Walker (Robert Joy) and Elizabeth Laine his wife (Mare Winningham) affirm.

Mare Winningham, Girl From The North Country, Conor McPherson, Bob Dylan

Mare Winningham, ‘Girl From The North Country,’ written and directed by Conor McPherson, songs by Bob Dylan (Joan Marcus)

Nick doesn’t admit to this “haunting.” But Elizabeth, at times strikingly sentient, other times searingly dementia-addled, suggests its impact. She refers to “hearing the girl down the hole” when she resists Nick’s struggles to attend her. In another instance, when Nick attempts to finalize the deal to marry off their adopted daughter, the pregnant Marianne (a moving Kimber Sprawl), to the 70-year-old Mr. Perry (a fine Tom Nelis), Elizabeth speaks of “the girl.” Thus, “the girl” becomes the signifier of women as casualties of abandonment, accidental negligence, and death at the unwitting hands of men.

This metaphor, further strengthened by the male/female interactions throughout, provides the backdrop for various songs. Love, its strength, its loss, is a theme found in Dylan’s songs: “Tight Connection to My Heart,” “I Want You,” “Make You feel My Love.” The husband/wife relationships weakened by want and economic stresses languish (“True Love Tends to Forget,” “What Can I Do For You,” “Is Your Love in Vain.”) And the young girls Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) and Marianne have few options but to settle for those they do not love, in order to gain security and shelter.

Escape from this desolation of want and hopelessness lurks in every character’s mind, especially in Elizabeth’s. Her “escape hatch” under her chair, where she’s collected coins and dollars, suggests women’s behavior from time immemorial. Sadly, the paltry sum wouldn’t take her far. And her dementia, if she did “escape,” would result in her being placed in a mental institution. Thus, Nick, the best husband he can be under the circumstances, humors and takes care of her with Marianne’s and his mistress Mrs. Neilsen’s (Jeannette Bayardelle) help.

After Dr. Walker apprises us of what happened and “the girl”‘s relationship to Nick, we understand why, throughout the production, Nick never sings his own individual/solo song. Unable to forgive himself for her death, he increasingly allows his inner life to wither. Laine’s emotional and psychic state remains doubly clear when he says to Mrs. Neilsen that he “has no soul” and can’t tell her he loves her. Desolation would overcome him with alcoholism, but he must take care of Elizabeth. It is she whom he lives for, as her caretaker. Their occasional interaction during Elizabeth’s sentient periods forces edgy and humorous exchanges.

Except for Dr. Walker and the elderly Mr. Perry, each character sings either his soul’s theme that typifies his/her existence or a song of regret and loss that asks questions about life and love. Most striking for me is Sydney James Harcourt’s portrayal as the boxer Joe Scott. His rendition of “The Hurricane,” portends the (racial) storm coming, both physically and metaphorically. Obviously, McPherson has drawn parallels between his Joe Scott and the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose quest for freedom Dylan supported against wrongful imprisonment in the 1960s.

Mare Winningham, Stephen Bogardus, Girl From The North Country, Bob Dylan, Conor McPherson

Mare Winningham, Stephen Bogardus in ‘Girl From The North Country,’ written and directed by Conor McPherson, songs by Bob Dylan (Joan Marcus)

Winningham brilliantly delivers “Like a Rolling Stone” with nuanced depth and power. With it Elizabeth indicts all who have entered their boarding house, her family, herself, indeed all humanity. For all, whether they admit it or not, are “on their own,” facing their own abyss. The rhetorical question “How does it feel?” and the silent answer we all fear and know in our “aloneness” become the signature theme of the musical. Fabulous!

Dr. Walker narrates the story of the Laines and their guesthouse. And Mr. Perry delivers a powerful word-aria when he attempts to persuade 19-year-old Marianne that he will take care of her, die soon, and leave her his inheritance – so why not couple? However, like Nick Laine, both Perry and Walker remain songless. It is as if they haven’t the heart/soul to pour out their feelings in melodic phrases.

Stephen Bogardus’ (recently Dr. Mark Bruchner in Irish Rep’s On a Clear Day) dynamic voice has been closed off  to portray Nick Laine. His Laine draws us in as he exhibits tireless efforts as proprietor of the boarding house he manages in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934. This semi-stolid figure, in his chaotic guesthouse, offering cheap room and board to a bankrupt businessman, his wife and son, a widow, a Bible salesman, and a boxer, cannot keep his family prospering. Like his impoverished guests, he struggles to make it to the next day and attempts to be sanguine about it. Of course he dreams and works at escape with Mrs. Neilsen; they wish to leave with her inheritance and start a hotel. It’s a Eugene O’Neill pipe dream!

As the musical develops, every hopeful door slams in Nick’s face. Son Gene (Colton Ryan) never gets that railroad job Nick moved heaven and earth to get for him. And Marianne doesn’t settle down with Mr. Perry, who offered to provide Laine with a check to pay a bit of his mortgage debt. Living with Perry would safeguard his daughter and her baby, Nick believes, though Marianne prefers seeking the baby’s father. When lawyers defraud Mrs. Neilsen, she decides to leave. For Nick this last door slams in his face.

Caitlin Houlahan, Colton Ryan, Girl From The North Country, onor McPherson, Bob Dylan

Caitlin Houlahan, Colton Ryan in ‘Girl From The North Country,’ written and directed by Conor McPherson, songs by Bob Dylan (Joan Marcus)

And when there appears to be no way out, Nick considers suicide. Dr. Walker mentions the high suicide rates after the Wall Street crash. Surely, suicides continued in high numbers during those Depression years. Homelessness, want, sickness, starvation – Nick has seen sufferers in tent embankments like those so trenchantly described in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Nick fears for himself and Elizabeth, for in a few months the bank will foreclose on their mortgage. Assuredly, they will end up like the other ragtags living in tents unless he finds a way for them.

Considering that Dylan’s songs range over decades, written before this project ever could have been conceived, McPherson selected an appropriate setting and characters for his musical’s book. Every character’s desperation spills out into urgent need for money and shelter. Like the Joads of Grapes of Wrath, right before they lose their home and travel, these characters strive and seek the comfort of one another. Thankfully, Nick’s boarding house provides “a welcome for lost souls.” There, Nick feeds them, they celebrate Thanksgiving, they dance. However, Mrs. Burke (Luba Mason), Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), and Elias Burke (Todd Almond) hide secrets. So do Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu) and Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt). On the run, they bring their fears and hidden sorrows to this guesthouse and eventually their darkness is brought into the light.

Todd Almond, Girl From The North Country Conor McPherson, Bob Dylan,

Todd Almond as Elias Burke in ‘Girl From The North Country,’ written and directed by Conor McPherson, songs by Bob Dylan (Joan Marcus)

Perhaps the most poignant of fears concerns the Burkes, whose strong, powerfully built son Elias manifests the mind of a three-year-old. Like the character Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, he understands little of his world around him and stumbles into fearful trouble.

The poignance of his demise is uplifted when Todd Almond as Elias magnificently sings “Duquesne Whistle.” As a spirit he has gone to the afterlife. No more materialistic pain and suffering shackles his mind and heart in darkness. Dressed in a white suit, free of his mental challenges, he and the chorus celebrate that other dimension McPherson beautifully presents. It is a full-on, gospel “coming home” ceremony. Elias (like his name-variant prophet Elijah), “makes it to the other side” of Light in a wonderful capstone to Almond’s complex and nuanced portrayal that stuns.

Thanksgiving, the last memorable party, follows with grim realities that unload truths on all of them. Only Elizabeth, after her marvelous speech about love and her marriage to Nick, afterward singing “Forever Young,” remains stalwart in her sentience and distraction. Indeed, with Nick’s help she has mastered the art of balance even in her dementia.

With finality, we look in the background at their last Thanksgiving together in tableau, as Dr. Walker narrates what he knows of the characters’ futures, reminiscent of the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And as McPherson is wont to do and does believably, Dr. Walker shares his passing to “the other side” in Christmas of 1934. We realize then that he has been speaking to us as a spirit of his memories of the Laines, the guests, and that time.

What more can be said about this marvelous must-see-a-few-times production? The chorus/ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams), are exceptional in voice and movement. Kudos to Rae Smith (scenic & costume design), Mark Henderson (lighting design), and Simon Baker (sound design). Simon Hale’s orchestrations and arrangements of Dylan’s music are exceptional. Additionally, without Lucy Hind, Unkledave’s Fight-House, Dean Sharenow, Marco Paguia, the actors who played in the band (Todd Almond, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason), and musicians Martha McDonnell, Mary Ann McSweeney, and others, the full impact of the production would be lessened.

The Girl From the North Country at the Public Theater runs until 23 December. Just wow! Visit the Public Theater website for tickets.

NYC Theater: ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’ Starring Melissa Errico at The Irish Rep

Charlotte Moore, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, John Cudia, Melissa Errico, Irish Repertory Theatre

John Cudia, Melissa Errico in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,’ directed by Charlotte Moore (Carol Rosegg)

I did not see the Broadway versions (1965, 2011) of the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever by Burton Lane (music) and Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics). Paramount Studio made a film of the musical starring Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand, which has been listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest musical films ever. Unfamiliar with the theater versions and the film, I did have a passing recognition of the more tuneful, memorable songs.

Thus, I came to Charlotte Moore’s adaptation of the show, currently running at the Irish Repertory Theatre, with a fresh perspective. The musical for years has been incorrectly (to my mind) characterized as “odd,” but I could not disagree more. I appreciated the Irish Rep’s revival and the lyrical, lovely music conducted by Gary Adler, engendered by music director John Bell and orchestrated by Josh Clayton. And I loved Moore’s canny direction and the accomplished, thrilling lead performances of Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus. Furthermore, the fine ensemble, also headed up by John Cudia as Edward Moncrief, strongly undergirded the dynamism of the revival/adaptation. Indeed, this production soars as a delightful theatrical experience full of whimsy, joy, and charm.

Melissa Errico, Stephen Bogardus, Irish Repertory Theatre, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Charlotte Moore

Melissa Errico, Stephen Bogardus in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’ (Carol Rosegg)

If one finds it difficult to accept the possibility of other realms of consciousness and making contact with past lives, the plot may appear inconsistently fantastic. Might we recall past identities, floating in our conscious or unconscious minds and impacting us in the present? Dr. Mark Bruckner (the gorgeously resonant-voiced Bogardus) through hypnosis regresses Daisy Gamble (played with energetic grace and verve by Errico). This premise, that we can recall past lives through hypnosis – an idea especially popular in the 1960s – grounds the play’s structure.

The regression occurs with Daisy’s permission after Dr. Bruckner discovers her amazing psychic gifts of precognition and telepathy. Threaded into her personality is a healthy dose of prescience. She predicts when the phone will ring. She communicates psychically and receives others’ thoughts. Of course, who communicates with her telepathically makes a difference, and why she receives their thoughts and not those of others conveys one of the play’s themes.

To say Daisy manifests the flexibility to suspend the culture’s rational materialism remains an understatement. And Errico handles Daisy’s gifts with authenticity and humor. For example, when she sings “Hurry It’s Lovely Up Here” to illustrate to Dr. Bruckner that her plants blossom speedily with her love talk, her luscious singing provokes our belief in Daisy’s extrasensory powers. With Errico’s magical, musical show-woman-ship, such feats of telepathy, etc., become humorous and matter-of-fact realistic.

Melissa Errico, Stephen Bogardus, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Charlotte Moore, Irish Repertory Theatre

Stephen Bogardus, Melissa Errico, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’ (Carol Rosegg)

It’s when Daisy and friends attend a group hypnosis session to stop smoking that the doctor notes her unusual susceptibility to hypnosis. Intrigued, he regresses her. With few props, clever costumes, and elusive painted projections, Moore and her artistic team stage 1960s New York City and 18th-century England adroitly. Somehow, the team’s artistry effects Daisy’s/Melinda’s environments and consciousness with appropriate, minimalistic fanfare. After all, this is a play about the mind, the intellect, and one’s ability to receive glimpses of the forever in the here and now. The small stage and pared-down sets and casting at The Irish Rep seem appropriately intimate for the overarching themes about the mysteries of life’s incorporeal beauty and spiritual grace in all living creation.

John Cudia, Melissa Errico, Irish Repertory Theatre, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Charlotte Moore

John Cudia, Melissa Errico in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’ (Carol Rosegg)

Under regression, Daisy transforms into elegant, well-healed Melinda Welles, replete with British accent and cool impassioned femininity. When her lover becomes her philandering husband Edward Moncrief (Cudia’s rich operatic voice melds beautifully with Errico’s in “She Wasn’t You”), and pursues many dalliances, unlike women of her time she revolts. To escape her misery and begin a new life, she books a passage to America. But her physical body never makes it. Perhaps her spiritual desire manifests through someone else? Regardless, Melinda, in Daisy’s unconscious, has arrived in Brooklyn and shows up when the time to manifest becomes appropriate. This notion teases with ironic humor.

Dr. Bruckner falls for the exotic, elusive Melinda (Bogardus impeccably renders the lovely song “Melinda”).  We understand his amazement at this other woman who appears when Daisy falls into unconsciousness under hypnosis. Melinda represents Daisy in a mysterious connection to the present which has yet to be revealed at this point.

Stephen Bogardus, Irish Repertory Theatre, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Charlotte Moore

Stephen Bogardus in Irish Repertory Theatre’s ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’ (Carol Rosegg)

Errico exquisitely portrays the dual opposites, Daisy and Melinda, as head and tail of the same coin. She slips from cool Brit to zany New Yorker smoothly, but the transformation remains a cipher. Daisy’s bubbly exuberance, Brooklyn-accented loquaciousness, and peculiar comfort with her psychic gifts belies insecurity and self-debasement. And Errico’s poised, mannered, suppressed Melinda belies the broiling, impolitic, rash female maverick. For she erupts, revolts against the cultural limitations of her sex, and sets out on a fateful voyage of doom.

But when Daisy discovers the tape of her regression sessions and realizes she loves Bruckner, she becomes jealous of the aspect of herself beloved by the doctor – Melinda. The amazing “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” that Daisy sings in anger and hurt is ultimately ironic, because she doesn’t realize that her past consciousness of Melinda is an element of her own character and ethos. Yet the song through Errico’s instrument becomes transcendent, a universal song of lost love after initial passion has faded. That both Daisy and Melinda are ultimately one she cannot realize until Bruckner evolves to understand his love for all of her.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Charlotte Moore, Melissa Errico, Irish Repertory Theatre

Melissa Errico and ensemble in Irish Repertory Theatre’s ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,’ directed by Charlotte Moore (Carol Rosegg)

That one character (Daisy) encompasses and feeds into the other (Melinda) reveals Alan Lerner’s depth in flirting with the complexity and intricacy of consciousness. And the depth with which the writer characterizes the evolution of Dr. Bruckner’s self-transformations also reveals his flirtation with novel, profound ideas.

The love Dr. Bruckner feels – first for Melinda – evolves into the knowledge that Daisy and Melinda inhabit the being of the same woman. Thus, at a crucial moment he saves her and assists in her own evolution as a modern woman who loves a worthier man than the one left behind in another time and place. Bogardus renders the gradual evolution of Bruckner’s love beautifully in his ironic comments to Melinda when she and Moncrief show affection to one another. Then it gloriously bursts out in his incredible, full-throttle rendition of “Come Back to Me” after his revelation that he has grown to love Daisy/Melinda as one.

Melissa Errio, Irish Repertory Theatre, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Charlotte Moore

Melissa Errico and the cast of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival, ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’ (Carol Rosegg)

Clearly, in helping her connect the present with the past in her own consciousness, Bruckner frees himself to love. And he helps free Daisy to return his love without jeopardizing her own psychic integrity. Finally, they solve how the mystery of Melinda’s death links to the present in a vital, uncanny way. The union of Daisy’s and Melinda’s consciousnesses binds Bruckner and Daisy in an incomparable clarity of vision, a way of seeing that gives them and their friends a glimpse into their interconnectedness with forever, the spirit, the eternal.

At the crux of Lerner’s and Lane’s work remains the theme that life encompasses more than materialism and empiricism. And in everpresent time, the past, present, and future may conjoin in the spiritual plane. We may be too distracted with the corporeal realm to understand how. Yet perhaps there are indeed realms of forever to which all of us are attached, whether we realize it or not. Finally, as Daisy Gamble learns, for those who have a gift of “second sight,” life is expansive. Used beneficially, such gifts may allow one to enjoy life’s beauties more fully and help others do the same. And in that expansiveness, one will probably discover the true meaning of love. The title song, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” best represents this theme.

In her adaptation of this musical Moore reconfigures the action and characters concisely and adriotly. With the help of music director John Bell, choreographer Barry McNabb, scenic designer/projection artist James Morgan, costume designer Whitney Locher, lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger, sound designer M. Florian Staab, projection designer Ryan Belock, the musicians, the ensemble, and the leads, this version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever shines like a beacon of truth.

Do you yearn to  get away from the current news cycles and our country’s present turmoils? If so this is a must-see. For you will have an extraordinary and uplifting time watching the team beautifully, seamlessly render the illusive with authenticity. The cast’s ebullience and the show’s ironic twists of humor will remind you of goodness. And you will feel embraced by the airiness of light. It would be a pity to miss the fun and romance, layered with an ethereal message we need to be reminded of.

The Irish Repertory Theatre’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever runs until 12 August. Tickets are available online.

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