A Canvas Bleak and Beautiful in Depression-Era ‘North Country’ 

If your American aesthetic is hope in the face of futility, like that found in John Steinbeck novels, María Irene Fornés’ Mud, and the grit and gravel of Bob Dylan songs, you’ve finally got your musical with Girl From the North Country. It runs through Sunday at the Paramount Theatre. 


If María Irene Fornés’ hauntingly bleak Mud were a large-cast tour set to music, it might look an awful lot like this. 

With Girl From the North Country, Irish playwright Conor McPherson was invited to do as he saw fit with Dylan’s catalog of iconic American music in crafting a story for them. (McPherson also directed this production.) The canvas he chose was Duluth, Minnesota, toward the end of 1934 — well into the Great Depression, when economic misery had firmly settled in and every other kind of misery along with it. (Dylan himself was born in Duluth at the tail end of the Depression.) Its setting in the holiday season allows the characters an excuse to celebrate, even as little else does. There, in the struggling Laine boardinghouse, the whiskey is neat and the lives are messy. 

North Country‘s characters read like an amalgamation of John Steinbeck novels, all pining for something better. Plenty of characters are on the move, while others hold out in place. Little comes easy, save for false hopes and swindlers. There’s a Lennie Small-style choking scene, as deep-seated hurts and tempers flare. The elements, unmoved by their suffering, pound them with more.

Yet there’s still beauty to be found in this kind of longing. The same things that make Steinbeck and Fornés and Dylan so enduring come through here. It’s not all suffering, and certainly it’s not all suffering simply for suffering’s sake. 

Jennifer Blood as Elizabeth Laine in the national tour of Broadway’s ‘Girl From the North Country’. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

As Fornés’ Mud does to Mae, Girl From the North Country belongs to Elizabeth, the much-maligned wife of boardinghouse proprietor Nick (John Schiappa). She’s a hard character to pin down, and her many facets contribute mightily to this telling. Introduced to us as mentally ill, half-conscious, and in constant need of supervision, it seems clear enough she’s in fact the sharpest person in the room: keen enough to keep an escape hatch, prescient enough to read the scoundrels, soft enough to sense the good, and brash enough to tell them all off as efficiently as possible. In a lot of ways, she’s the exemplar of what every other woman on stage is feeling: trapped and underestimated. She can play it up to her advantage, toying with them. But will it ever get her anywhere? Or, knowing more than she lets on, is she exactly where she wants to be? 

Elizabeth is in stunningly good hands with Jennifer Blood, who performed the role on Broadway as well as on the tour. Her daggers are sharp. Her letting go is carefree. Her threats are more than credible. Her many sides usually feel like sweet justice. 

Blood’s Elizabeth shows what a completely rapt house at the Paramount looks like: an audience completely still and silent, save for a quiet gasp audible from half a section over, hanging on each word and pause as she sings the opening minutes of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Sure, it’s iconic; but it’s her command and flair for the drama that’s got everyone glued. It’s a show-making performance. 

Matt Manuel as Joe Scott in the national tour of Broadway’s ‘Girl From the North Country’. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

Although none are quite as dramatic, several of the other key actors get their distinct moments in the light: as Joe, Matt Manuel’s voice is crystal-clear and impassioned in a medley of “The Hurricane” and “All Along the Watchtower,” among others, and he pairs wonderfully with the powerful Sharaé Moultrie as Marianne. Kyle Sherman (as Elias in the performance I saw) is angelic in the light and vocally, when he finally gets his moment to shine. 

Sharaé Moultrie as Marianne Laine in the national tour of Broadway’s ‘Girl From the North Country’. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

Aside from a couple show-stoppers, all of this is sung while life passes them by, sometimes prominently, sometimes as mere shadows. The set design (by Rae Smith) and lighting (by Mark Henderson) are both unobtrusive, exactly what this show calls for. Dylan’s music is used artfully, like a good soundtrack in a movie: memorable, fitting, scene-setting, emotionally keyed-in, rarely with the express purpose of telling the story; it lets the characters do that. In that sense, “the Bob Dylan musical” rarely looks like a musical at all, and much more like a play with music (prominent, really good music). This is not a happy show. But the era and its hardships form a true canvas for Dylan’s music. 

It seemed pretty clear, on opening night, that a lot of audience members didn’t know what they’d gotten themselves into. The Broadway touring season, after all, brings plenty of joyful stuff and big musical flourishes. Girl From the North Country hardly fits the mold on any usual account; but did they really think Dylan songs would be saccharine? Some seats went notably vacant after intermission; worse, before the final number, there was a baffling exodus so screamingly obvious it prompted one audience member to chide them (rightfully so) with a “They’re still singing!” that was audible halfway across the main floor. The disrespect of that exodus, at that time, and with that little shame, was stunning. 

It’s their loss. The final number, “Pressing On,” is Carla Woods’ time to shine, bolstered by the full chorus around her, a highlight both vocally and in bringing the whole thing together. If you’re going to watch two hours of Depression-era heartache brought to life by a catalog of iconic, gritty tunes, you might as well see where it goes.  

How does it feel? 

It may be bleak, but it sure is beautiful. 

Girl From the North Country runs through 6/30 at the Paramount Theatre, in Downtown Seattle. Tickets here. Financial accessibility note: unusual for Broadway tours, there are plenty of good seats remaining and some very low-priced verified resale tickets available for this run (as of 6/26). Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restroom on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted and audio described performance at 6/30 matinee; open-captioned performance 6/30 evening.

Run time: 2 hours 35 minutes, with intermission.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of