Dylan musical spins a ‘Hurricane’ on stage

Todd Almond and the cast of “Girl From The North Country.” Photo: Matthew Murphy

Writer: Mathany Ahmed

My best friend Tina is what the kids these days would call a “stan” of Bob Dylan. Many of our nights out together end with her playing his songs while she tells me all about his lyrical genius, his political activism and, of course, that Nobel Prize from 2016. So when I got tickets to “Girl from the North Country,” the Dylan musical that runs through Sunday at the Des Moines Civic Center, Tina was my first call. I love the theater, she loves Dylan, and between the two of us, I was sure we’d both find something here to enjoy.

We did. There were some show-stopping scenes. I’ll be thinking about that “Rolling Stone” number for days. The actors have real chemistry and big-time energy. The visuals are simple but effective, with old-timey costumes and evocative lighting.

But the overall effect? Well, it’s complicated, as they say. There are a lot of moving pieces, and they don’t always add up to a greater whole. Director Conor McPherson, who wrote the book, seems to overwork some storylines and neglect others, which blocks the show’s beating heart.

The story unfolds in a boarding house in Duluth, during the bleak winter of 1934. Its owners, Nick (John Schiappa) and his mentally ill wife, Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood), have two adult kids named Gene (Ben Biggers), a failed artist and bumbling alcoholic, and Marianne (Sharaé Moultrie), a Black woman they adopted as a child. Early on, the father and son discuss whether they should encourage 19-year-old Marianne to marry a 70-year-old neighbor. Since she’s pregnant with the child of an unnamed man, and the family is on the brink of financial ruin, a marriage may be her best option.

But there are other dilemmas in the house. Each boarder brings plenty of baggage, including Nick’s mistress, an ex-convict, a door-to-door Bible salesman and a well-heeled couple traveling with their “simple” adult son.

In all, more than a dozen characters compete for attention, and some of their storylines get shortchanged. Just when I was connecting with Marianne and her boy/geezer problems, another character jumped into the spotlight. I wanted more of Elizabeth, too, whose uninhibited antics and powerhouse voice – with a bit of raw Dylan grit – stood out among the dizzy mix of characters. Everybody seems to need more elbow room.

You’ll recognize “Hurricane,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Make You Feel My Love” (hey there, Adele). But even my friend Tina didn’t recognize some of the newer and lesser-known tunes from Dylan’s 60-year career. “These songs are all from the B-sides,” an older woman next to us said. She smiled. “Do you even know what that means?”

A lot of Dylan’s music doesn’t lend itself to a song-and-dance musical. His songs are emotional but not flashy. They don’t try to win you over, which is what a musical has to do. For my Dylan-loving friend, the Broadway-style performances were too much. But for me, the main characters needed a chance to do more.

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