This story is featured in CityBeat's Oct. 18 print edition.
You might think Bob Dylan’s songs are truly not the kind of material to fill up a jukebox musical. That’s precisely what Girl From The North Country is not. Instead, it’s a serious but joyous play with music, with a crowd of complex characters in a struggling boarding house in 1930s Minnesota. It’s the work of Dublin-based Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose prior plays such as The Weir, Shining City and The Seafarer have been staged by Cincinnati theater companies — not a musical among them. But The Guardian called this show a “remarkable fusion of text and music.”
Actor John Schiappa plays the central character of struggling boarding house owner Nick Laine. In a recent phone conversation with CityBeat, he said, “Conor found a way to use the music. It’s not a typical musical where the songs forward the narrative. They might forward the inner character a bit or the moment a bit, somehow giving you a deeper understanding of what just happened. It’s not a typical musical in that sense — it’s truly a play with music. There’s a saying we talk about in the show: ‘vinegar and honey.’ The scenes can sometimes be the vinegar, and the music is the honey. It’s a very different kind of show.”
Orchestrator Simon Hale was adamant that the instruments used for the show be from the 1930s, since that’s when the story happens. Hale’s Tony Award-winning musical arrangements breathe new life into 19 of Dylan’s songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Forever Young” and, of course, “Girl from the North Country.”
Schiappa, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music in 1983, plays the owner of the boarding house. His character is the linchpin of the story. He came to the role by an unusual path. “When I first read the show to audition, all I could think of was ‘I want to be in it, I want to be in the room with these creatives.’ I just loved it so much. It lived up to expectation.”
After its successful debut at London’s Old Vic in 2017, Girl From The North Country came to New York City, where it was initially presented at the Public Theater in 2018. Schiappa was a member of that initial American ensemble, understudying an array of roles. He continued as a cast member when it moved to Broadway in 2020, a run that was interrupted by the COVID pandemic. When it re-emerged post-pandemic, he remained with it. Now in the national tour, he’s filling a role he understudied through each of those iterations.
“One of the joys of being with it from the beginning,” Schiappa told CityBeat, “is that I saw one actor do it downtown, a different actor do it uptown and I ended up doing it on Broadway several times. So I got to inhabit the role for a while. As a father myself with two kids in that age range, I have a lot of life experience to bring to this. What Nick Laine is doing is just trying to keep his head above water. He’s trying to keep everything moving. He’s trying to get his kids successfully launched into the world so they don’t rely on him anymore, so they can be safe and secure and have a life beyond him and his wife. He’s taking care of his wife, and he’s running his business. There’s a lot there that I can relate to. I think a lot of people in the audience can relate to it, too.”
Schiappa marvels at McPherson’s use of Dylan’s music. “How Conor managed to weave in Dylan’s music in a way that is unique and surprising and delightful and joyful is still a mystery to me. I didn’t realize how much of Dylan’s music I actually knew because other people had covered it. You look at these lyrics and these songs and you go, ‘Ohhh! That’s one of his songs!’” What’s more, Dylan is as recognized as a poet as a songwriter, having been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, recognizing him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The first national tour of Girl From The North Country is just underway. It debuted in Minneapolis, and Cincinnati is its second stop. Schiappa is eager to share the show’s stories and music with audiences across America. “If you’re somebody who likes a good story, whether it’s around the water cooler, a movie, a song, a play — you’re gonna like this,” he told CityBeat. “It’s a good story and that’s what theater is, when we all gather in a room and hear a story that’s being told. This is a unique experience that is worth having. Storytelling is the best way people can connect with each other, and theater has a way of elevating that. If you like to have a good time listening to a story and being pulled into it … that’s reason enough. Come with an open heart, and you’ll be delighted.”
Girl From The North Country is being presented now through Oct. 29 by Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts. Info: cincinnati.broadway.com.
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