For Bob Dylan Musical, Conor McPherson Jettisons the Jukebox

"Hurricane," "Forever Young," “Like a Rolling Stone” -- but not always where you'd expect them.

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Caitlin Houlahan, Colton Ryan in "Girl From the North Country." Photo: Joan Marcus.

When is a jukebox musical not a jukebox musical? When it’s Girl From the North Country, which is written by playwright Conor McPherson and uses songs by Bob Dylan. The show bowed at London’s Old Vic last year, and now it’s working its unique creative magic at the Public Theater in NYC through Dec. 23.

This is the second musical pegged to the songs of the 2016 Nobel Prize winner. The first was The Times They Are A-Changin’, which Twyla Tharp conceived, choreographed and directed in 2006 on Broadway. That piece, definitely a jukebox musical, logged only 63 performances.

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Girl From the North Country is a musical of a different, darker color. It has come about not because McPherson or Dylan instigated it, but because Dylan’s publisher was aggressively approaching artists to deploy Dylan’s canon as fodder for the stage. (Was Dylan behind any of those approaches? I doubt it. This is a man who wouldn’t accept his Nobel in person.)

The music publisher clearly hit pay dirt in guitar-playing playwright McPherson (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer). First, he’s a big Dylan fan but, more than that, he liked the challenge, devising a script set in a Duluth, MN, boarding house in 1934. Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, and was raised in nearby Hibbing.

The story McPherson dreams up has an impressively authentic feel for an Irish playwright. Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus) runs this strapped boarding house with his depressed wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), cantankerous son Gene (Colton Ryan) and unsettled African-American adopted daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl). Passing through are Dr. Walker (Robert Joy, narrating Our Town-like); town rich man Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis); the on-the-run Burkes (Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Todd Almond); the on-the-lam Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu); and boxer Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt). Then there’s Mrs. Nelsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), who is having an affair with Nick, and Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan), with whom Gene would like something more binding than an affair.

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As the Laines host these guests and neighbors (on Rae Smith’s loose set and in evocative costumes), McPherson plucks 20 songs from the Dylan songbook — mostly lesser-known folk and folk-rock compositions — not to comment on the action but to make observations about it. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

As I watched, as I listened, it occurred to me that McPherson’s intent might be for Dylan’s material to serve as a kind of poetry, one reflecting the painfully prosaic Great Depression lives suffered by the characters. Still, most songs aren’t placed in an obvious way. While “Hurricane,” Dylan’s 1976 outcry about the wrongful incarceration of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, is pertinent to its moment, for example, Dylan’s straightforward, gentle “Forever Young” occurs in startling contrast to the relentlessly sad developments of the show.

What’s more, McPherson takes the establishment of the stories at a leisurely pace at first, putting the audience’s attention at risk. But by the second half, the interactions accelerate dramatically — and again, none lead to any remotely joyful outcome.

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Well, what else can you expect of a Depression exploit? Certainly no Kaufman-Hart You Can’t Take It With You, no Astaire-Rogers escapist film fare. Two marriage proposals go unaccepted. A threat of murder is made, violently. At least two unjust prison terms come up, with only one exoneration tallied. A gun materializes. Ice like steel on a nearby lake is discussed. A business failure and a bank foreclosure loom. There’s homicide and suicide. Much of this discontent takes place on a Thanksgiving Day when there’s clearly precious little to be thankful for.

As directed by McPherson, and with seamless movement by Lucy Hind, the actors form a formidable ensemble. Bogardus, Nelis, Pittu, Ryan, Sprawl, Kudisch, Mason and Almond all  get a moment to shine, especially in deliberately subdued lighting by Mark Henderson that suggests nothing bright ever prevailing during the afflicted 1930s.

As star-crossed lovers, Ryan and Houlahan achingly sing “I Want You” as their relationship founders. That, like “Hurricane,” are perhaps the only cases where Dylan’s songs match the moment. They’re heartbreaking, though, and they represent some of the most stunning vocalizing in the show. Winningham gets to offer the two most familiar Dylan songs: the aforementioned ”Forever Young” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” In context, the repeated lyric of the latter song, “How does it feel?,” pertains to the fresh hell the boarding house figures are undergoing. Winningham’s devastatingly graceful chanting — the sort to be recognized in awards season — is another reason Girl From the North Country really isn’t a jukebox musical.

Here’s another: jukebox musicals count on applause from the audience for the songs they know already. McPherson contrives matters to elicit no applause. When Winningham looks ready to bring the house down with her performance, McPherson unceremoniously cuts the number off. Could his idea be that repressing applause leads to more vociferous clamoring at the final blackout? Perhaps. The idea certainly succeeded with me.