Worth the trip: Bob Dylan songs in ‘Girl from the North Country’ and ‘The Velvet Underground Experience’ in New York
Bob Dylan song are heard and Velvet Underground artifacts are on display in downtown Manhattan.
Bob Dylan revolutionized music by demonstrating that there were no limitations on what a pop song could say or sound like.
And Lou Reed ran with that anything-goes ethos, pointing the way for generations of punk and alternative rockers.
This fall, the art of the two change agents can be experienced in locales just around the block from each other in downtown New York, close to where both artists cut their teeth in the 1960s.
Dylan's songs are put to creatively stunning use in Girl from the North Country, the theatrical production written and directed by Conor McPherson. It's playing at the Public Theater though Dec. 23.
And Reed, his bandmates, and the Andy Warhol-led denizens of their Manhattan milieu are celebrated in The Velvet Underground Experience, a museumlike multimedia exhibition that's occupying a storefront on Broadway through Dec. 30.
Both shows are worthy of a hike up the New Jersey Turnpike and can be done in a well-executed day trip. And though Girl from the North Country is a much tougher (and more expensive) ticket, the likelihood that the show will move uptown to Broadway early next year is high, with rumors that it will move into the Walter Kerr Theatre, currently housing Springsteen on Broadway, which shuts down next month.
Girl from the North Country
The mere existence of Girl from the North Country seems improbable. A Bob Dylan jukebox musical written by an Irish playwright and set in 1934 in a rooming house in Duluth, Minn., seven years before the Bard himself would be born there? Really?
It happened because Dylan and manager Jeff Rosen, who are shrewd at repurposing the songwriter's body of work (see my review of the new More Blood, More Tracks box) solicited proposals from playwrights for creative use of his unequaled song catalog.
They approached McPherson, author of the acclaimed The Weir and Shining City. His proposal won over Dylan, who granted the playwright use of all of his songs, with no restrictions.
What McPherson has done with that freedom is use mostly obscure Dylan songs as musical glue to make emotional connections between the Depression drifters and grifters who move through the threatened-by-foreclosure rooming house owned by Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus) and his beset-with-dementia wife, Elizabeth, played by Mare Winningham.
The interwoven plot threads recall mid-20th-century storytellers such as Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson, with contemporary resonance. Plot points turn on the fate of the Laines' adopted African American daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), a foundling left on their doorstep, and Nick's relationship with a boarder played by Jeannette Bayardelle.
Winningham has a big showcase with "Like a Rolling Stone," but most of the 20 Dylan songs given intelligently crafty makeovers are lesser known. "Sign on the Window" from 1970's New Morning, "Slow Train" from 1979's Slow Train Coming, and "Duquesne Whistle" from 2012's Tempest each get show-stopping treatment.
Theatergoers are likely to leave knocked out by McPherson's ingenuity in making the songs seem like they were written for the stage. But they're also likely to leave thinking the guy who wrote them has even more excellent songs than they thought. Serious Dylan fans should make every effort to see it.
The Velvet Underground Experience
The bar was set extremely high for a pop music museum show by David Bowie Is, the truly immersive traveling exhibit that came to the Brooklyn Museum this year.
Does the Velvet Underground Experience match it? Not even close.
The VU show, originally displayed in Paris in 2016, is not nearly so well-designed. Rather than a cohesive presentation about the band — led by the odd couple of Long Island Jewish intellectual Reed and classically trained Welsh composer and bassist John Cale (and which originally included drummer Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison) — the VU Experience is more like an entertaining hodgepodge somewhat haphazardly arranged.
Jonathan Caouette's film America America, for instance, starts the show, set to Allen Ginsberg narrating his poem "America." Interesting, but not sure what it's got to do with the Velvets. Free headphones are provided, with few places to plug them in. Some explanatory display cards seem like they might have been written in French using Google Translate.
That sloppiness means the Velvet Underground Experience isn't recommended for non-initiates.
There's plenty to captivate fans, including Steven Shore's exceptional black-and-white photos. There are lots of vintage film clips of the Velvets and their associates on view, plus comfy cushions to lounge on.
An interview with Reed's sister Merrill sheds light on their parents' misguided decision to allow doctors to give their son electroshock treatment. And I loved the picture of young Lou with his dog Seymour, named after a character in J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day For Bananafish."
And my favorite part of the show was a short film on Nico, the German model-actress and "I'll Be Your Mirror" singer. Who knew she had a bit part in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita? And guess who introduced her to Warhol, and thus to the Velvets? Bob Dylan.
If You Go
The Velvet Underground Experience, 718 Broadway, New York. $25-$50. velvetunderground-experience.com.