Monday, November 12, 2018

Unlikely Musicals: Girl from the North Country and Allelujah!

Kimber Sprawl and Sydney James Harcourt in Girl from the North Country. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The mood of sorrow in Conor McPherson’s beautiful new play Girl from the North Country, reaching down as deep as the deepest well, is both aching and piercing, and when you walk out of the Public Theatre at the end (where it’s about to end its sold-out run) it hobbles you: my step was slower, my mind a little befogged, and I had the impression that I was carrying something heavy and unresolvable with me. Yet the evening is often joyous. The seventeen-member ensemble, each performing at capacity, sings the Bob Dylan songs in Simon Hale’s exquisite arrangements – there are twenty in all – with brio and with full hearts. The music decorates the air and makes the show swing, even when it comments on lost love, even when the narrative context of the lyrics turns them ironic. And though the overarching theme is loneliness, the music also imbues what we see on the stage with an unmistakable feeling of community, in the sense of a common humanity. I found myself thinking of Our Town – with Robert Joy, as the narrator, Dr. Walker, almost taking on the role of the omniscient Stage Manager in the last minutes – and of Spoon River Anthology, as well as of Pennies from Heaven, because of the Depression-era setting and because Girl from the North Country is a Brechtian jukebox musical.

The location is a guest house in Duluth, Minnesota, run by Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), who is struggling mightily, but without much hope, to keep the wolf from the door. He cares for his wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham, at her most remarkable), who drifts in and out of reality but somehow manages at the same time to keep an eagle eye on her surroundings, as well retaining a bristling humor. Their son Gene (Colton Ryan), an aspiring writer, mostly lives inside a bottle; he has never recovered from the death of his sister when they were both children, and nobody but the audience knows how the departure of the woman he loves, Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan), has smashed him up. (She leaves town at the beginning of the play to marry the man her parents have picked for her; it seems clear that she had hopes of winding up with Gene but has finally given him up as a lost cause.) The Laines also have an adopted African American daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl); raising her in a part of the country that was KKK territory in the early decades of the twentieth century has made Nick continually anxious for her. Now she’s nineteen and pregnant, and he’s persuaded Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), who’s in his fifties and has been given an ominous health report, to propose marriage to her, but she turns him down.

Nick himself is romantically involved with one of the guests, Mrs. Nelsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), a widow stuck in limbo while she’s waiting for her husband’s will to get out of probate. She and Nick dream of opening a fancy hotel with the money, but as time wears on and her legacy is no closer to being resolved, she begins to consider her sister’s invitation to come live with her in Oklahoma. Then there are the characters with mysterious pasts: Frank Burke (Marc Kudisch), his wife Laura (Luba Mason) and their childlike grown-up son Elias (Todd Almond); an ex-con ex-boxer named Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt); and a Bible salesman who calls himself Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu) and may be something of a mind reader.

McPherson takes to the 1930s American setting with amazing fluency; the marvelous weirdness comes from the project of fitting the Dylan tunes, mostly ballads, to the ambling storyline – and also from the brushes with the supernatural that we’re accustomed to getting in McPherson’s plays (and in his one movie, the sadly neglected The Eclipse). When Marianne finally reveals the tale of how she got pregnant, it’s as eerie as the ghostly goings-on in The Weir and Shining City or the poker game with the devil that forms the centerpiece of The Seafarer. And even on foreign shores and without the brogue, McPherson manages to bring a lyrical quality to the dialogue that is uniquely his, especially in the monologues Kudisch and Winningham get to deliver. (Kudisch is one of the most reliable musical-theatre performers around; I’ve seen him on stage for years, but his work here has a fearful power I never expected from him.) McPherson also directed the musical, moving his actor-singers around the mainstage at the Public with masterful ease and a painterly eye. Rae Smith, of War Horse fame, designed both set and costumes, and Mark Henderson lit the play; these two artists come together memorably during “Like a Rolling Stone” (sung by Winningham), where members of the cast are silhouetted upstage before a projection of a black-and-white prairie landscape with a gargantuan sky.

Some of the actors also play instruments – Almond, Kudisch, Mason – and everyone has solos, including the members of the ensemble I haven’t mentioned because they don’t play specific characters. There are some spellbinding blues voices, like Harcourt, who sings the first verse of the opening number, “Sign on the Window,” and also “Slow Train Coming,” and Matthew Frederick Harris, the first one to claim a verse of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and Bayardelle, who takes the lead on “True Love Tends to Forget.” A number of these tunes I didn’t remember; they come from Dylan albums I never got around to buying, or bought and listened to only once; these renditions make me feel I’d missed a boat here and there. The way they’re performed here, and given their context, many of the songs hit you like thunderbolts, including a couple you might have thought you knew inside out, like “I Want You” (which McPherson uses as the farewell duet between Gene and Kate) and, believe it or not, the generally maligned “Forever Young.” Only two of them don’t work: “Hurricane,” which has too specific a lyric and really is a terrible song no matter what you do with it, and “Idiot Wind,” which is a great song but simply doesn’t suit the moment. The last time someone built a show around Bob Dylan, it was Twyla Tharp with The Times They Are A-Changin’, a fiasco that beat a hasty retreat. (I caught it just before it vanished.) Girl from the North Country is a triumph.

Sacha Dhawan and Simon Williams in Allelujah! (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

In Alan Bennett’s new play Allelujah!, which NT Live recently broadcast from London’s Bridge Theatre, the aging patients at a London hospital struggling to stay open, known as “the Beth” (short for Bethlehem), sing in unison the popular songs of their youth and sometimes dance together. These interludes are charming, and the twelve actors who make up the ensemble of patients perform them sweetly and exuberantly. (Arlene Phillips choreographed.) The problem is that the numbers all make the same point: that despite their physical incapacities and their increasing forgetfulness – and despite the fact that Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), the head nurse, has been killing them off, one at a time, as soon as they become incontinent in order to liberate much-needed beds for the geriatric ward – these senior women and men are, in fact, still full of life. Allelujah!, which is a black-comic vaudeville about the end of life and the English medical profession (written, appropriately enough, by a playwright in his mid-eighties), has patches of superb dialogue – hardly unusual in a Bennett work – but once you get used to the way it works, it doesn’t hold many surprises. And to be honest, I’ve never been crazy about British satirical vaudevilles, which were hugely popular in the sixties and seventies; nearly half a century later the thought of The Ruling Class and O Lucky Man! still makes me cringe. Some of the actors in Nicholas Hytner’s production fall naturally into the kind of comic exaggeration that makes me want to reach in my bag for a paperback. (David Moorst is the worst here.) On the other hand, I enjoyed watching Findlay, Samuel Burnett (as the son of one of the patients) and Sacha Dhawan (as a compassionate doctor) – both alums of the Bennett-Hytner smash, The History Boys – as well as a number of the older actors, especially Jeff Rawle and Simon Williams.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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