I can’t stop thinking about GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY a strange and complex amalgam of music and storytelling. The Tony Award-winning musical now onstage at the Emerson Colonial Theatre features 22 songs by Bob Dylan, is set in Dylan’s hometown Duluth, Minnesota but appears to have little to do with the Nobel Laureate’s life or music as we’ve heard it before. Writer/director Conor McPherson seems to have hijacked Dylan’s profound songs and hitched them to a melancholy melange of tales of his own making about life as a struggle for survival, love, connection, humanity. The storyline recalls both August Wilson’s “Joe Turner” set as it is in a guest house where a disparate array of travelers have blown in on the wind along with an all-knowing other-worldly narrator from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

What feels like a cast of thousands play a ragtag bunch of depressed and depression-era travelers: down on their luck vagabonds, conmen and convicts, hopeless husbands and their disappointed, demented wives, shiftless traveling salesmen, lonely unwed mothers, orphaned and neglected children– all of them trying to rise above poverty,    racism, alcoholism, looking for love or a warm meal. Their stories play like a collage of bleak sketches overlayed with songs that have little to do with them literally, but everything to do with them in a larger, existential way– and who can say Dylan didn’t mean all of that and more…

The musical numbers seem to erupt out of nowhere and exist outside the action as a kind of cry for connection, spiritual uplift, meaning– and the ensemble’s voices take you there. These songs are stirringly and unusually arranged with alternate harmonies and rhythms, the voices individually and in concert are downright heavenly. The staging is spare and elegant with the cast floating around onstage sometimes taking turns on various instruments or breaking into impromptu dances and desperate love songs.

At first the show feels incoherent. There’s no dramatic through line linking these stories, aside from how bleak they all are. And there’s a disconnect between the action and Dylan’s songs as we may have originally thought of them. They are reset here– perhaps to make us hear them in a new way? I swear, I never heard FOREVER YOUNG the way I heard it here, as an invocation of innocence in the face of life’s hard truths. The songs don’t seem to illustrate what these characters consciously feel in the moment, but rather express something deeper, a universal longing for something better, and hopeful from our best selves, beneath our personal tragic circumstances.

As a critic I think about how and why a show works, what it means, etc. But I say to audiences hang in there and just let this show wash over you– and stay put for the final glorious moments, when the whole sprawling cast delivers a profoundly inspiring PRESSING ON — a defiant call for hope and heart and faith in the goodness of life no matter the struggle. The audience leapt to its feet! Presented by Broadway in Boston at EMERSON COLONIAL THEATRE through March 24th!