Monday, October 25, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W43: Girl From The North Country, Caroline, or Change

What: A transfer from The Public Theater, a new jukebox musical using the songs of Bob Dylan, about an assortment of personalities in and around a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934.
And? I have so many questions. And, since Conor McPherson both wrote and directed this show, I'm directing them all to him:
  1. What did I just watch?
  2. Why don't you establish the language and structure of the show and how the songs work (or don't) in conversation with the dialog, so we know how to listen? I was desperately looking for some character depth or emotional dilation in the lyrics and was lost so quickly.
  3. Would I have minded this less if I knew Bob Dylan's music better?
  4. Why does each scene feel like an excerpt from a different play? Why do you introduce characters, conflicts, or the idea of an arc, only to never return to them during the next 2.5 hours? 
  5. Why are you so afraid of writing scenes that reveal character, that you have a periodic narrator to explain things instead?
  6. Why are the majority of songs so dramatically inert and disconnected from their adjacent scenes?
  7. Why is there so little coherence among the various elements telling this story?
  8. Why are scene transitions such a bland inactive character drop that distract from the scene that hasn't yet ended? (except Jay O. Sanders, who valiantly holds character even to carry a chair across the space as he exits)
  9. Speaking of Jay O. Sanders, I understand you are making some kind of statement by having Nick, the center of the story, have no music, but since you never explained to me how music functions in this play (and really, it's a play with music, right? not a musical? I mean?), I don't know what that statement is intended to be. John Doyle's revival of Company this is not.
  10. Also what is up with those scrims? Why do we have a view of an empty road behind an interior scene?
  11. What is the point of the radio mics? The performers address most of the songs straight out to the audience regardless of the presence of one, like this is a concert and not a story.
  12. Why do you put the band onstage but not light them? Also why do you have a band onstage but ask your actors to handle the drum set (and then not light them)?
  13. Speaking of not lighting your performers, why don't you light the face of the character with the final emotional beat? Hasn't she earned that?
  14. Why do you include a song with the slur for the Romani people? Is that vital to the story you're telling? Is it? I know that we have a number of classic musicals which use that word (including "Anything Goes" and the Sondheim-Styne show whose title is the word itself, and that's something we need to grapple with), but this is a new show. You get to make choices. You chose this.
  15. Why are you contributing to the harmful narrative that people with mental illness are a danger to those around them?
  16. Why do you ask me to have empathy for a character that, one scene earlier, called a grown Black man "boy"?
  17. Why does the ghost of an implied murderer get the one song of lightness and joy?
  18. This show got good reviews in London. What got lost in translation?
  19. Who is the Girl from the North Country?
Jay O. Sanders and Todd Almond and Mare Winningham are great. Most of the cast is good. The vocal arrangements and orchestrations are beautiful. But what was that, Conor McPherson?

The cast of Girl From The North Country. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

What: Roundabout's London-import revival of the Tesori-Kushner musical about a Black maid in Louisiana "in 1963 or 4," and her uneasy friendship with Noah, the young son of the Jewish family who employs her.
And? THIS IS SO GOOD. I'm so appreciative that they aren't trying to recreate the original production (which I also loved) but are still staying true to the story being told (*coughIvovanHovecough*). All the design elements are working in concert with each other (those costumes! the sound design! the lighting! and the set! At first I was worried about the set design, because they weren't always activating the turntable in ways that made it seem a necessary element, and because sometimes parts of the set seemed to be in the actors' way, but by the end of the show I was won over: the design isolates Noah beautifully, makes clear status statements while centering Caroline, and the resolution of all the tensions created by these spaces actually made me gasp. Beautiful). They're also leaning more into the awkwardness of the well-meaning-but-clueless liberal white person inserting themself into Black spaces--in young Noah wishing to be part of Caroline's family and imagining they talk about him, in Noah's new stepmother Rose trying to bond with Caroline, and in Rose's father thinking he knows best how Black people should demand equality--in a nuanced way. The cast is wonderful (though I have to wonder how John Cariani, who as far as I can tell is a gentile, has made such a career playing Jewish men; he's all right here, but less successful than in past performances I've seen from him), especially Sharon D. Clarke, in shining stoicism as Caroline, her deep voice and stern face a grounding and compelling presence for the whirring energies around her. Kevin S. McAllister also makes an especially good impression with his I-could-listen-to-it-for-hours voice and sly physicality. If I had one small complaint (and it is small), it's in the shape they give to Caroline's big second act aria, "Lot's Wife." In the original production, Caroline's rage overwhelmed and expended all her energy, so that when she turned suddenly to grief, asking God to murder her, it was all she had left inside her; here, Caroline's anger peak is a moment of triumph and met with applause, and the actor has to then physically shift from that moment to the moment of quiet despair, like a switch being flipped. I hope the director realizes he can sacrifice the midsong applause moment to achieve a better organic journey for Caroline.

But like, that's my one issue. I love this production. I'm so pleased it's as good as I hoped it would be, especially after the disappointment the night before.

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