The thing about The Girl from the North Country is that it doesn't make a lick of sense.
The story goes one way and the songs by Bob Dylan go someplace else. Really it's not so much a long, strange tour through Dylan land as a long, strange tour adjacent to Dylan land. But a complete absence of logic never caused anybody any harm, and the show offers many, many sublime and thrilling moments.
All of these moments are contained in the eccentric choice of Dylan songs covered by the large and busy cast. The story itself is the least of the show's charms. It's a Dust Bowl variation, a kind of grapes of something resembling wrath set in a boarding house in 1934, in Duluth – Dylan's home town, which he couldn't wait to leave and see the world.
The world comes to Duluth in The Girl from the North Country.
The guests are drifters and grifters, lovers and losers, and boy do they have a story to tell, loudly. One must project onstage and the cast project the hell out of the Civic. You could probably hear them across the Harbour Bridge, and up among the potato fields of the Bombay Hills. Their sound and fury signifies nothing especially interesting.
There's a boxer with a heart of gold, a dishonest Bible salesman, a madwoman in an attic, a country doctor who rambles…Dylan wrote characters like this in his Wild West epic The Basement Tapes, and that great 1967 double album is represented on The Girl from the North Country with a country-hoe-downed version of You Ain't Going Nowhere.
Dylan invests his own live performances with deranged versions of his back catalogue. It's a constant reinvention, and that same spirit soars throughout The Girl from the North Country. Idiot Wind, that bitter tirade sung by a man in the charred ruins of a divorce, is transformed into a soft and touching hymn at Thanksgiving. Like a Rolling Stone becomes a sad inquiry, asking with genuine concern entirely absent in the original, "How do you feel?"
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The Civic is a happy place every time the cast quit telling their loud so-what story and launch into a Dylan song. A double bass and a fiddle play from the shadows, and caress Dylan's songs into being. Strange choices! You expect that singalong favourite Forever Young, less so the blathering Jokerman, and the novella Senor, which states, "This place don't make sense to me no more". Yeah. The show never really does. But the song sounds great, full of wild imagery (a broken flag, an iron cross), and the choice is actually not so much eccentric as inspired.
Maybe the most thrilling and sublime moment of the night is the version of I Want You, from Blonde on Blonde. The original is a throwaway, a pleasant bit of nonsense to pass the time. It's radicalised on The Girl from the North Country as a beautiful love story and it's like hearing the song for the first time, stripped back and put back together in a way that would surely make its composer proud.
You can do anything with a Beatles song. They are always going to resonate with the genius that created them. The Girl from the North Country shows you can do anything with a Dylan song, too. It's an ingenious and dynamic musical, a must-hear.
The Girl from the North Country is on show at Auckland's The Civic July 3-July 16