Sydney Festival has announced the first show in its 2022 program under new Director Olivia Ansell. The musical Girl from the North Country, written and directed by Irish dramatist Conor McPherson, with songs by Bob Dylan, will open at the newly refurbished Theatre Royal in January. The cast will include Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman, Terence Crawford, Peter Carroll and Helen Dallimore.

Girl from the North Country premiered at The Old Vic in London in 2017 and has since had sell-out seasons at New York’s Public Theatre, in the West End, in Toronto and on Broadway.

The musical was suggested to McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer) by Dylan’s team and features around 20 songs from across his career, including Slow Train, I Want You, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Like a Rolling Stone.

Girl from the North Country London

Girl from the North Country in London’s Noël Coward Theatre, 2018. Photo © Tristram Kenton

Set in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934, during the Depression, the plot spins around a community living on a knife-edge in a local guesthouse. The owner, Nick, is facing foreclosure on the derelict house where he rents a room, his wife Elizabeth has dementia, his alcoholic son Gene helps erratically, and his adopted daughter Marianne is pregnant – though no one knows who the father is. When a preacher selling Bibles, and a fugitive boxer looking for a comeback, turn up in the middle of the night, things start to spiral.

Girl from the North Country is produced in Australia by GWB Entertainment, Damien Hewitt and Sydney Festival.

Sydney Festival Director Olivia Ansell said: “This is such an exciting announcement, particularly because of what it signals for Sydney. The arts are coming back; performances are coming back; one of the city’s most iconic venues – the Theatre Royal – is coming back; Sydney Festival is coming back.”

“And with fifty percent of the Girl From the North Country cast and crew hailing from Sydney, we are so pleased that this production, and the festival, will be playing an important role in aiding the city’s recovery, employing NSW artists and crew whilst supporting our local live entertainment communities.”

Co-Producer Richelle Brookman for GWB Entertainment said that Girl from the North Country “is most definitely not a jukebox musical. Celebrated playwright and director, Conor McPherson has created a perfect fusion of emotive, dramatic theatre with twenty songs by the iconic Bob Dylan, weaving through and enriching the storyline about those we love and hold dear, our hopes and sense of place and purpose. All things that have heightened importance at this time.”

When the musical opened at London’s Old Vic in 2017, Michael Billington gave it a five-star review in The Guardian and said that “the piece uses the songs to reinforce the mood of desperation and yearning that characterised America in the Depression era”.

It is “the constant dialogue between the drama and the songs that makes this show exceptional,” said Billington. “The songs are drawn from every decade of Dylan’s extensive catalogue, and are presented as visible ‘numbers’, with the actors often singing into stand-microphones. At the same time, they articulate the characters’ innermost feelings.”

Reviewing the Broadway production for The New York Times in March 2020, just before COVID shuttered venues, Ben Brantley described the show as “profoundly beautiful” and said that while “this singular production…. under McPherson’s luminous direction, evokes the Great Depression with uncompromising bleakness, it is ultimately the opposite of depressing. That’s because McPherson hears America singing in the dark. And those voices light up the night with the radiance of divine grace.’

Lisa McCune said: “Every now and then a show or character has a profound effect on you… Girl from the North Country and Elizabeth Laine were that for me, and I am thrilled to be to be part of an incredible ensemble cast for the Australian premiere at the newly renovated Theatre Royal Sydney.”

“With music and lyrics by the legendary Bob Dylan, set to a beautiful book written by Conor McPherson, I know audiences will share in a memorable theatrical experience.”

Girl from the North Country plays at Sydney’s Theatre Royal from 5 January. The rest of the 2022 Sydney Festival program will be announced on 17 November.

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