Before he grew up to be a Tony-nominated playwright and director, Conor McPherson wanted to be in a band. An aspiring teenage guitarist, according to an official bio. So it must have come as a thrill when Bob Dylan’s management approached him to imagine a way to bring the folk-rock legend’s music to the stage. Trusted with six decades of songs, McPherson aims high — this is no biographical jukebox musical.
His original script for Girl From the North Country, which McPherson also directs, is the Dubliner’s first set in America, in this case Depression-era Duluth, Minnesota. (Later Dylan’s birthplace.) Yet despite a sold-out run in London, the show currently at New York’s Public Theater feels like a misstep. The challenge of collaborating with this monumental body of work trips up the much-acclaimed McPherson. His words — blustery, profane, biting — never find a way to mesh with the evocative, easy poetry of the troubadour himself.
This play with music (rather than traditional musical in which the songs further the narrative) concerns the proprietors and residents of a rooming house just before Thanksgiving, 1934. They are a predictably sad lot of folks, each one in a bad way. Collectively they are: facing foreclosure, pregnant and unwed, lovelorn and alcoholic, failing mentally, cheating guiltily, widowed and broke, and burdened by a grown child with a developmental disability.
They rage at one another, enter into awkward courtships, and slip in and out of sobriety and affliction. And then they break into often rousing rock tunes. The effect is extremely odd: An uneasy mash-up of a hard-luck ensemble drama and the Bob Dylan songbook, a sort of The Jokerman Cometh.
The cast and on-stage band put over the songs well in their new arrangements. (There are roughly 20, first recorded between 1963 and 2012.) But even as you’re tapping your toes, you may well be shaking your head: Why this upbeat rendition of “The Hurricane” just after tragedy hits? Are we ever going to hear again from those two star-crossed lovers after their duet of “I Want You” from Blonde on Blonde? (Sorry: no. That’s just one storyline that is dropped like a stitch in a homemade scarf.) And good grief, what’s with the disco ball?
Among those distinguishing themselves in this ambitious jumble is Sydney James Harcourt as a boxer who has done someone else’s time. (This echo of the real Rubin Carter, the subject of a Dylan song, is one of the few straight lines drawn between the music and the story.) Also Kimber Sprawl as the girl-in-trouble whom he woos. Luba Mason delights doing triple duty acting, singing, and playing the drums. And the watchable Mare Winningham has a stand-out moment leading the group in “Like a Rolling Stone.” But what this confident delivery of the most famous number in the show has to do with her otherwise sporadically demented lady-of-the-rooming-house character is not made clear. After more than two hours in their company, many of North Country’s residents remain complete unknowns. B