‘Girl From The North Country’ gives a new life to the music of Bob Dylan
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TheaterShow runs Jan. 9–14

‘Girl From The North Country’ gives a new life to the music of Bob Dylan

The Depression-era musical, set in Duluth, Minnesota, is not a retelling of Dylan’s life, but rather reimagines 20 of the Jewish composer’s songs.

Cast of "Girl From The North Country" (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Cast of "Girl From The North Country" (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Kelly McCormick has played many roles, but there’s one she couldn’t rehearse: her real-life role as the wife of a rabbi.

The actress, who will come to Pittsburgh next week to perform in “Girl From The North Country,” a musical featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, said her last name sometimes throws people off.

“People will say, ‘Are you Jewish? What kind of a Jewish name is McCormick?’” she said, speaking from Washington, D.C., where the show had just opened at the Kennedy Center. “And I like to say, ‘It’s Sephardic.’”

Kelly McCormick (Photo courtesy of Kelly McCormick)
McCormick, who converted to Judaism before marrying Rabbi Jonathan Blake, senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, has the charisma of a polished stage performer. It’s easy to see how she would naturally relate to congregants as a rebbetzin.

“It’s a great honor,” she said of her role as a rabbi’s wife.

Still, it took her a while to figure out how she could best serve her community.

“I was not raised Jewish,” she said. “I grew up in a church where you have a lot of interaction with the minister but not the minister’s family. So I had to get used to the idea that a rebbetzin was a thing — that I had a role — and then to figure out what that was.”

She found that to best serve her community, she could rely on instincts honed as an actress.

“I think that often I’m called upon to really be present and create space for people’s stories, and to connect to them emotionally,” McCormick said. “For both roles (rebbetzin and actress), it’s an emotional connection on a very human level.”

And, indeed, the Tony Award-winning “Girl From The North Country” calls upon McCormick to connect with its audiences on a human level. The show, an original story by playwright Conor McPherson, opens at the Benedum Center on Jan. 9 and runs through Jan. 14 as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series.

The Depression-era musical, set in Duluth, Minnesota, is not a retelling of Dylan’s life — although Dylan was born in Duluth — but rather reimagines 20 of the Jewish composer’s songs, including “Forever Young,” “Slow Train Coming” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” as it tells the stories of a group of wayward travelers who meet at a rundown guesthouse.

McCormick, part of the show’s ensemble and also an understudy for two featured roles, is moved by the show’s themes of ultimate hope and resilience.

“I think that we have to meander through some places that are not quite hopeful to get us there,” she said, “but at the end, certainly my heart is overflowing with a sense of the resilience of the human spirit. And I think that’s where the hope comes from: When we lean into community, even if we are faced with really dire circumstances, which these people are.”

The show is set in 1934 in November, “so it’s very cold and very bleak,” McCormick said. “And in the Depression, of course, people were dealing with all sorts of challenges, but they get through it and come out stronger. I think our spirits are so tightly knit at the end of the show, and that’s where the hope comes from.”

McCormick was first drawn to Dylan’s music through her husband, who she described as “the world’s biggest Bob Dylan fan.”

In celebration of Dylan’s 80th birthday in 2021, the rabbi “preached Bob Dylan sermons for a year” and “made the cantors sing Bob Dylan music for their meditations for a year. And then this culminated in a summer concert,” she said, where everyone sang Dylan’s music, as per the rabbi’s instructions.

Convinced his wife would love the music, he made her a Spotify playlist around the time she was auditioning for “Girl From The North Country.”

“I will tell you now, I’m a convert in a second way,” McCormick said. “I’m a convert to the brilliance of Bob Dylan.”

And Judaism, she said, has given her “a special insight into some of the lyrics that some people find most mystifying.”

Some of the songs in the show are replete with Jewish imagery, McCormick said, including “Forever Young,” with its lyrics “ladder to the stars,” a reference to Jacob’s ladder, and its allusion to the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers.

She finds the music to be “so richly layered.”

“I feel like all of us need many, many passes at any of these songs to understand them, and I think they’re meant to be understood personally,” McCormick said. “So what you bring to it with your background is going to be different than what I do, and I think that’s great. That’s really celebrating the diversity of the human experience.”

The musical is “unusual,” Timothy Splain, the tour’s music director said. “It’s unlike any musical that I’ve seen. It’s this really beautiful play that’s about the lives of these people that come together through sort of chance and circumstance, and the humanity that goes on display when people are in difficult circumstances and forced to grapple with the world as they find it.”

While he sees the show as “hopeful,” it’s a “hard-won hope,” he said. “It’s a play without easy answers. It’s an optimism that’s arrived at through much trial. So, it’s like life in that way, where the people in this show are tested, and their humanity is what emerges and what gets them through. It’s a play that really grapples with difficult questions in very human ways.”

Dylan’s music perfectly complements the story, Splain said.

“There’s an image that the production team uses: If the play is the vinegar, then the music is the honey,” he said. “There’s a central family that’s at the core of this story, and they are experiencing a lot of difficulties. And they’re sort of tough with each other in what they say. But they are bound essentially by this love, and we get that reflected in the music. So, if you were to transcribe what a family says to each other sometimes in the course of a busy day, the things that are actually said is the sort of language of conflict, but what keeps them together is an essential love that sometimes is spoken and sometimes is unspoken. And the music is reflective of that inner love, inner passion in our striving.”

The arrangements by Simon Hale (“Spring Awakening”) “are really beautiful,” Splain stressed. “They won the Tony for best orchestration. … There’s a real authenticity to the arrangements. They don’t sound like the Broadway version of doing a folk musical; they sound like a band.”

In fact, the show’s musicians are all on stage, in costume and “fully integrated into the play.”

“It’s a moving piece,” Splain said. “I have to say I get emotional every time I see it.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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