When Girl From the North Country first opened off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2018, I was visiting my son, who lives in the city, and was bummed about missing the hoopla surrounding the show. At the time, it received rave reviews and won an Emmy.

Written and Directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson as a musical with a book, this is the second show using Bob Dylan’s music (after Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are a-Changin.’) It is the first musical to use all of Dylan’s lyrics. The brilliance of this production is how the director wove twenty-eight of Dylan’s songs into the story, bringing the audience into the hearts and minds of the meticulously written characters in the play, which takes place during and throughout the Great Depression. Coincidentally or not, the story occurs in Duluth, Minnesota, in Dylan’s childhood hometown.

Live music was performed onstage with original instruments from the 1930s. A wildly original interpretation of Dylan’s tunes by Simon Hale (composer) into innovative interpretations of bluegrass, country, gospel, and swing left me with an open mouth and eyes popping.

Alan Ariano narrates the story at various intervals. Girl From the North Country is about struggle, poverty, and addiction. A flophouse owner, Nick Laine, battles with finances, love, and loss. His wife, Elizabeth, is crazy, and their son is an alcoholic. A string of characters pass through the flophouse, including a corrupt bible salesman-faux preacher, a wrongly accused and jailed young Black pugilist, and others reminding us of how our current state of politics is similar to that of almost one hundred years ago. Nick tries passing off his “adopted daughter” like so many cattle, to a sleaze bag old man in town who has some money but Elizabeth in all her dementia knows better.

Kudos to the traveling actors in this show, with a special acknowledgment to the divine singer/actor Sharaé Moultrie, who played Marianne, the adopted daughter of a demented mother (who presumably became “that way” after she was molested as a young girl) and an unknown father. She sounded as if she had operatic training, but at the start of her career, she went into finance until her passion grew more robust and pulled her toward theater.

The vocal ensemble elevated Dylan’s music to new and unexpected heights. “Idiot Wind”: a cacophony of disparate voices whose harmonic brilliance and highlights focused on two lovers singing to one another. “I Want You” was a pantheon of unrequited longing sung masterfully. “Hurricane”, like a nimble dancer, pirouetted through the air, embraced by the fervor and ardor of the singers. It was like sailing on a voyage into the very soul of music itself. My heart swelled with emotion, and spirit soared on the wings of every soaring refrain. In the crescendo of the song, the voices merged into one glorious symphony, their unity a testament to the boundless power of human connection. Every song was a moment suspended in time, figuratively and literally, where the ebb and flow of sound mirrored the eternal rhythm of Bob Dylan’s universe, and that of Girl From the North Country.

It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Girl From the North Country won Best Orchestration and was also the sole Broadway musical nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. After the show I immediately downloaded the entire soundtrack to my YouTube library and haven’t been able to get some of the songs out of my head.

On the night of the show I attended Paul Blankenship was on as Mr. Burke – typically played by David Benoit, Kelly McCormick was on as Elizabeth Laine – typically played by Jennifer Blood, Kyle Sherman was on as Elias Burke – typically played by Aidan Wharton, and Rayla Garske covered Kelly McCormick’s ensemble track, while Danny Vaccaro covered Kyle Sherman’s ensemble track.

The pity of this performance had nothing whatsoever to do with the actors, script, music, or organization that puts on the wonderful Broadway in Austin shows, but everything to do with the sad state of Bass Concert Hall. The sound was awful with the audience straining to hear the spoken word and lyrics sung. The hall is a chamber that sucks in the fidelity to the back of the stage. The volume was so low as to be inaudible, I wondered who on earth is the sound engineer but worse, who designed the hall? It certainly was and is not state-of-the-art quality. There are no side speakers on the walls let alone surround sound. If the hall did have side panel speakers the night of the performance they were muted.

What made the experience exasperating was that this was a MUSICAL!

Furthermore, my friend and I had to change seats three times until we found an opening in front of us whereby we could actually see the stage. From the orchestra pit which was built incorrectly without angling, a center aisle, or armrests that are long enough for an adult, one has to wonder how Bass continues to be billed as a premiere hall for performances.  With one of the largest endowments of any college in the USA, I beseech UT to use some of its sport funds and invest in a better sound system and seating at Bass.

Besides the new Moody Theater, Bass is one of the few venues to see world class shows by Texas Performing Arts. I will continue to go to all the great shows performed there. In addition, I will write to the Governor’s office and Provost of UT about the state of the hall.  Opinions dear readers? I’d love to hear from you about your experiences there.

The show runs until April 28, 2024

Tues – Thurs at 7:30 pm | Fri at 8 pm | Sat at 2 & 8 pm | Sun at 1:30 & 6:30 pm

Bass Concert Hall | 2350 Robert Dedman Drive | Austin, TX 78712

TICKETS: Start at $30. Tickets are available at texasperformingarts.org and BroadwayinAustin.com, by phone at (512) 477-1444, or from the Texas Performing Arts ticket office at Bass Concert Hall.  For groups of 10 or more, call (877) 275-3804 or email Austin.groups@broadwayacrossamerica.com

For information on future shows visit www.texasperformingarts.org and https://austin.broadway.com/

Lead Photo: Jennifer Blood

Second photo: Sharae Moultrie and Matt Manuel

Both by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

By Elise Krentzel

Elise Krentzel is the author of the bestselling memoir Under My Skin - Drama, Trauma & Rock 'n' Roll, a ghostwriter, book coach to professionals who want to write their memoir, how-to or management book or fiction, and contributing author to several travel books and series. Elise has written about art, food, culture, music, and travel in magazines and blogs worldwide for most of her life, and was formerly the Tokyo Bureau Chief of Billboard Magazine. For 25 years, she lived overseas in five countries and now calls Austin, TX, her home. Find her at https://elisekrentzel.com, FB: @OfficiallyElise, Instagram: @elisekrentzel, LI: linkedin.com/in/elisekrentzel.