In a Depression-era musical, Dylan’s music gives everyone a boost – The Irish Times

North Country Girl

3Olympia Theatre, Dublin
Rating: 5/5

At the start of Conor McPherson’s terrific musical, set in 1930s Minnesota during the cold of the Great Depression, someone describes a struggling guest house that hangs a sign on its door: “No Company permitted”. A notice in the porch says, “Three is a crowd.” At this point, it’s clear to almost everyone in the audience that those are Bob Dylan’s corny lyrics.

After charming audiences in the West End and Broadway, the jukebox musical comes to Dublin, where after Once: The Musical and Come from Away, it feels like another confinement. The pit orchestra feels like a live band, as instruments lie throughout the guesthouse, waiting for residents to play them.

Whether those aforementioned musicals seemed twee or saccharine, McPherson’s book isn’t as easy to reconcile. At its center, Nick (the owner of the guest house, played aptly by Colin Connor) is in debt up to his neck, while caring for a woman who has descended into dementia praecox (Frances McNamee). Admirably, McPherson wrote the character to trigger as much unease as sympathy, giving him an affair with a hotel guest and sending him to set up a match between his pregnant daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) and a business owner several decades older than her.

The advantage here is that the lyrics are taken from the pages of one of America’s greatest songbooks. “I’ll accompany the charade / Until I can think of my exit”, sings Marianne de Kehinde with youthful determination, during Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Everyone Seen my Love). The arrival of a former convict resembles that of a lover, but also, with the impressive musculature of Joshua C Jackson, with Rubin Carter, the boxer of Dylan’s Hurricane.

It’s amazing what can happen when Dylan’s words fall down other people’s throats. “There’s a slow, slow train coming around the bend,” Jackson sings, promisingly, playing a black man in the Jim Crow era. For Jokerman, a group of women unite to have a private quorum: “Freedom is just around the corner for you / But with the truth so far away, what good will it do?” The music seems to give everyone a boost.

That Like a Rolling Stone is given to McNamee’s Elizabeth, frustrated by dementia and often doomed to observe other people’s dramas, adds further contempt to her chorus: “How does it feel?”

All the lyrical matchmaking doesn’t make sense. On songs like Señor, it feels like you have to pay attention to folk tenacity (“Let’s flip those tables”) rather than detail (what does the gypsy “with a broken flag” have to do with things?). Against this ambiguity, McPherson seizes on a safer connection to his past rooms, giving the guesthouse the evocative feel of a candlelit ghost story.

If anything, it’s the tumultuous histories of America, in which the musical family will sadly split up and disappear. Yet an uplifting epilogue reminds us of what perseverance looks like, before the winds of change blow. Sounds like Dylan.

Until July 30.

About Roy B. Westling

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