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Bob Dylan transports us to Depression-era ‘North Country’ by way of Broadway

Each beguiling character paints a portrait of desire and desperation, longing for a better life.

“Now you don’t talk so loud / Now you don’t seem so proud / About having to be scrounging your next meal / How does it feel? / To be on your own / with no direction home / like a complete unknown / like a rolling stone” — Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is widely considered one of the greatest songs ever recorded. In the Broadway musical The Girl from the North Country, the anthem is used to great effect.

Kelly McCormick rips your heart out, singing “Rolling Stone,” proclaiming lost innocence and how harsh experiences can be. With the snappy delivery of her lines, vocal prowess, and physical comedy, she’s a scene-stealer as Elizabeth, the boardinghouse proprietor’s wife, who suffers from some kind of dementia but isn’t as mentally absent as she often appears. It’s a moment where time stops, and this one character speaks for each suffering character on stage.

North Country weaves more than 20 Dylan songs into an original ensemble drama set in northern Minnesota during the Depression. But many do not spring organically from the plot. An interesting concept but ultimately confusing. Additionally challenging because there are so few recognizable Dylan hits, with the exception of “Rolling Stone,” “Forever Young,” “Hurricane” and “I Want You.”

Explaining how author and director Irish playwright Conor McPherson developed this conceptualization: “Within the tension that’s created between not understanding what’s going on and yet, at the same time, absolutely feeling you do know,” he told an interviewer. “Somewhere in that vibration is the great feeling.”

Certainly, the songs relating to the plot are the most memorable, but it’s recommended to just sit back and enjoy the performances and the tragic story vividly told. And the performers are spectacular, beginning with the aforementioned McCormick, marvelous as a understudy for Jennifer Blood.

Matt Manuel is stunning as Joe Scott, a boxer apparently on the run from the law, singing “Hurricane,” a rousing Dylan protest song. Another standout performer is Ben Biggers who sings “I Want You,” a song slowed down into a heartfelt plea sung to a young woman, but the love he feels is not requited. Elias Burke (Aidan Wharton, superb singing “Duquesne Whistle”) suffers from autism and stuttering; we watch how he changes for the better while in the company of others.

Each character is an archetype in McPherson’s script without veering into cliché; every person on stage remains full-blooded and vital.

While others might bemoan the show as not being a traditional jukebox musical, with songs that don’t always relate to the story being told, North Country requires setting aside expectations. I was captivated.

► Through June 16 at The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater. Tickets and more information at saltlakecity.broadway.com

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