REVIEW: Broadway in Cincy’s “Girl from the North Country:” An Earthy Musical Character Study

Review by Nathan Top

What do you want your life to look like? Does it look like that now? What would you be willing to sacrifice to achieve your own idea of happiness? Conor McPherson’s pensive musical Girl from the North Country asks these existential questions (along with several others) in what can be described as a slow-burning, nuanced, and ultimately rewarding piece of theatre. 

The Story

Girl from the North Country begins in the middle of the Great Depression. Guesthouse proprietor Nick Laine and his family live with a variety of families and individuals, each with their own personal baggage. With the threat of foreclosure looming, two guests arrive late one night and ask for a room. This pivotal moment shifts the social dynamic of the home, resulting in an ultimatum that would change the lives of the Laine family and their guests forever. With a book by Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson and music from the Bob Dylan catalog, Girl from the North Country was nominated for seven Tony awards, winning for Best Orchestration. 

Aidan Wharton and the cast of the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The Production Team for Girl From the North Country

Directing his own work, writer/director Conor McPherson’s vision and mood of the show is specific and hypnotic. Leaning on character rather than spectacle, McPherson’s musical exists more as a tragic and life-affirming Chekovian play set to a live Bob Dylan soundtrack. Rather than move the story forward, the music acts as a texture to the simple and haunting world, with the musicians and actors floating in and out of scenes.

Movement director Lucy Hind, scenic and costume designer Rae Smith, and lighting designer Mark Henderson create a fluid, ambient backdrop for the actors to pop out from and disappear back into as necessary, creating a seemingly continuous motion to the show. There are few moments where the musical number ends and the show stops for applause. The story drives the show through both acts up to the final moments of narrated epilogue.

Chiara Trentalange (center) and the cast of the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade).

Music director Wiley Deweese does a lot with the small pit, some of whom are doubling as actors in significant roles. The vocal blend of the cast glows, at times even sparkles during larger group numbers. A medley of “Hurricane/Along the Watchtower/Idiot Wind” is one of the highlights of the show, featuring Matt Manuel as nomadic former boxer Joe Scott and Sharae Moultrie, as the pregnant and single teen Marianne Laine. Moultrie also gives a deep and melismatic rendition of “Tight Connection to My Heart” early in act one, which was ultimately my favorite number of the show. 

L-R Ben Biggers, Sharaé Moultrie, Jennifer Blood and John Schiappa in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade).

Great Performances

John Schiappa and Jennifer Blood, as frustrated married couple Nick and Elizabeth Laine, walk a tightrope between empathetic and tumultuous throughout the show. Ben Biggers is their drunk, underachieving son Gene Laine. Biggers shares a heartbreaking and beautiful scene with Jill VanVelzer as Kate Draper, Gene’s former significant other. This is followed by a chemistry-filled duet “I Want You.” The show as a whole is a petri dish of vibrant and flawed characters who draw the audience in and win them over just in time to break their hearts. 

Sharaé Moultrie and Matt Manuel in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade).

Bottom Line

Girl from the North Country is not your typical bowl-of-sugar-cereal type jukebox musical. This is a well-written and thoughtful piece of theater that will stay with you long after the final bows conclude.

Tickets to Girl from the North Country

Running now through October 29th, tickets to Girl From the North Country can be purchased here.