What is one to make of "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the murky musical misfire that combines the considerable talents of director-choreographer Twyla Tharp and pop superstar Bob Dylan.
It's hard to tell what Tharp, who conceived the show, had in mind, judging from the confusing, surreal production on stage at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The diffuse plot is as ragged as the tattered overalls worn by the production's creepy clown chorus, an able, gymnastic bunch of dancers awash in scary pale makeup that make them look like refugees from Cirque du Soleil.
There are clues to Tharp's intentions in the theater program where the setting is ominously described as "sometime between awake and asleep" and where the musical is called "a fable." Forget life being a cabaret. In "Times," it's a small, seedy circus, a garish, colored-light world wonderfully created by designer Santo Loquasto. Allegory, anyone?
The story, if you can call it that, concerns a father, a son and a woman who seems to come between them. Dad is a gruff, grinning sadist called Captain Ahrab; son Coyote, an unhappy Candide-like youngster; and Cleo, a circus performer of mysterious origin. None of them is particularly well defined - or interesting.
Visually, though, there are some arresting moments, particularly when Tharp's dancers are hurtling across the stage. Whether bouncing on trampolines, using hula hoops, jumping rope or tossing beach balls (shades of the unlamented "Good Vibrations"), they have an unflagging energy that almost makes up for the nebulous love triangle.
Tharp uses a few of her dance regulars here, including John Selya, Ron Todorowski and an amazing Charlie Neshyba-Hodges. They are all veterans of "Movin' Out," the choreographer's Billy Joel-Vietnam era musical that had a lengthy Broadway run.
"Times" isn't likely to repeat that success, despite the inclusion of some of Dylan's biggest hits - including "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Lay, Lady, Lay" - in the show. They are played with gusto by a small band perched above the stage.
Dylan's gutsy, often blues-tinged songs seem grafted on to the entertainment, which contains no dialogue. Yet the show's three main performers sing these numbers heroically, almost as if they were appearing in a rock concert. Special kudos should go to
Michael Arden, a genuine find. He portrays the show's budding hero with an appealing earnestness that transcends the thinness of his character. And while not a dancer, Arden holds his own against the more experienced movers on stage.
Thom Sesma, as the father, growls like an aging rock star, while Lisa Brescia, who admittedly has the least to do, strives and succeeds in finding a lost vulnerability as Cleo.
Brescia does deliver an affecting version of "Don't Think Twice It's All Right," sung to a dog, portrayed with floppy-eared sweetness by Jason McDole. That mutt is one of the evening's meager attempts at humor, a quality sorely lacking amid all the pretension Tharp plies onto this lame coming-of-age parable.
No one can say that Twyla Tharp doesn't take risks. She used Billy Joel songs as a backdrop for her choreography and, against the odds, turned "Movin' Out" into an exuberant, athletic pop ballet that ran three years on Broadway.
Now she takes on Bob Dylan in "The Times They Are A-Changin, '" which she conceived, choreographed and directs. Tharp ups the ante in light of Dylan's stature (an icon to all and "God" to many) and the nontheatricality of his music. A long shot.
Unfortunately, Tharp sabotages herself this time. She makes dance secondary and concentrates on the music. The result is a standard-issue jukebox show (he sings; she sings; they sing; repeat) set in a shabby circus dreamworld (who knows why?). Tharp's clown car runs out of gas an hour into the show's 90-minute length, which is strange, since Dylan is such a provocative and infinitely soulful songwriter.
"The Times" covers some two dozen loosely connected tunes, including familiar ones like the title song, "Simple Twist of Fate," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Lay, Lady, Lay" and the less familiar "Not Dark Yet." It holds limited appeal for Dylan disciples as well as for Broadway audiences seeking a sense of wonder, cohesion or emotion. There are lots of acrobatics and trampoline tricks, if that's your thing. Santo Loquasto's set and costumes are an eyeful.
Donald Holder's lighting is dramatic. The story, such as it is, revolves around a power struggle/love triangle. Thorn Sesma plays the sadistic circus owner; Michael Arden is his wide-eyed son; Lisa Brescia is a runaway torn between them. Guess who gets the girl. The leads are fine singers and, aided by the energetic ensemble, do their best to perform in the odd tableaux Tharp has come up with.
Arden sings "Mr. Tambourine Man" while perched high in the air on a crescent moon as a man dances on the stage. "Like a Rolling Stone" finds clowns bouncing around on gym balls. "Man Gave Names to Ali the Animals" includes actors cavorting in sheep and cow costumes. My thoughts during this number - and about a pesky guy dressed as a dog that constantly runs around the stage - would get me in big trouble with PETA.
Everyone dreams about running away and joining the circus. It's too bad Tharp couldn't resist the urge.
Will Twyla Tharp do for Bob Dylan what she did for Billy Joel - make him a Broadway star? Can lightning strike the same place twice?
In this case, well, no.
The director/choreographer's "The Times They Are A-Changin' "was unveiled last night, and at best I would call it a brave, if pompous, try.
Apparently, the idea for a Dylan musical came from Dylan himself. If so, he should have written fresh songs, and not relied upon his redoubtable but essentially unstageable songbook.
Or he might have had some directorial hack - which Tharp is not - put on a superior jukebox musical.
For Dylan's music - and, just as important, his poetry - is declamatory. It doesn't lend itself to a run-through ensemble story such as Tharp extracted from Billy Joel for their hit, "Movin' Out."
Here, she's contrived what she calls "a fable," based on the hoary old metaphor that life is a circus. Well, yes, mate. Send in the clowns.
What we're left with is a sadistic, whip-cracking circus owner named Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma), who's very nasty to his young mistress, Cleo (Lisa Brescia), and even nastier to his son, Coyote (Michael Arden), who has his eye on Cleo.
A near-Greek tragedy is averted when the clowns vanquish Ahrab, Coyote takes over both the circus and Cleo, and everyone - except Ahrab - sings "Forever Young."
Tharp describes her work as "a dreamscape," and this emerges as a phantasmagoric mix of avant-garde playwright Caryl Churchill at her craziest and the Cirque du Soleil at its cutest. In fairness, not all is lost.
Tharp has sure theatrical moments, but they're all too rare, and her acrobatic choreography is mostly brash, busy and obvious.
The cast consists of three actor/singers and a uniformly excellent dance ensemble. As Coyote, Arden projects sweet, boyish innocence while Brescia's Cleo sings with just the right bittersweet air.
The dominant performance is Sesma's Ahrab, hopping around like Long John Silver on speed, with leering protuberant eyes, teeth in search of an orthodontist and a manner that would do justice to a Faustian demon.
Yet after 90 surprisingly long minutes, the whole shebang - complete with terrific scenery and costumes by Santo Loquasto and imaginative lighting by Donald Holder - is a one-star concept with a two-star staging, three-star cast and four-star, if patchwork-quilted, score.
The concept - downmarket pretentiousness gone cheap - finally sinks it. Wait for the cast album.
And now for the latest heart-rending episode in Broadway’s own reality soap opera, “When Bad Shows Happen to Great Songwriters.”
If you happen to be among the masochists who make a habit of attending the entertainments called jukebox musicals, in which pop hits are beaten up by singing robots, you may think you’ve seen it all: the neutering of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in “Good Vibrations,” the canonizing (and shrinking) of John Lennon as a misunderstood angel-child in “Lennon,” and the forcible transformation of Johnny Cash from Man in Black to Sunshine Cowboy in “Ring of Fire.”
But even these spectacles of torture with a smile, frightening though they may be, are but bagatelles compared with the systematic steamrolling of Bob Dylan that occurs in “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
Mr. Dylan’s songs have been entrusted to the great choreographer Twyla Tharp, the woman who gloriously redeemed the jukebox genre with “Movin’ Out,” a narrative ballet set to songs by Billy Joel. Ms. Tharp is one of the bona fide, boundary-stretching geniuses of modern dance. And when a genius goes down in flames, everybody feels the burn.
Using little more than the bodies of her dancers to tell a decade-spanning story of an American working-class generation, Ms. Tharp found unexpected depths in Mr. Joel’s music. Using a whole lot more scenery, props and special effects to create a circus-themed allegory of fathers and sons, Ms. Tharp single-handedly drags Mr. Dylan into the shallows.
Among epochal popular music artists of the last 50 years, no one has matched Mr. Dylan in combining a distinctive, easily identified style with an evasiveness that defies pigeonholes. Folkie, protest singer, rock’n’roller, gospel spiritualist, symbolist poet: Mr. Dylan has invited and rejected each of these labels, wriggling out of them with Houdini-like slipperiness to reinvent himself anew.
His very style of singing — casual, almost throwaway, yet achingly intense — provides a remarkably complete defense system against those who would parse his lyrics into one core of meaning or belief. Divorce his words from his melodies, and pretension and preciousness rear their self-conscious heads. Most of Mr. Dylan’s best songs, even his full-throttle anthems of rebellion and hedonism, tingle with ambivalence, mystery and a knowing sense of the surrealism of so-called reality.
A surrealist approach would certainly seem to have been Ms. Tharp’s idea for “The Times,” first staged at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego last winter and extensively revised since. This songbook-driven tale of Oedipal conflict is set in a traveling circus, the sinister, down-at-heel American variety portrayed in films from the 1930’s and 40’s like “Freaks” and “Nightmare Alley.” But with her top-drawer design team, led by Santo Loquasto (sets and costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting), Ms. Tharp pushes the atmosphere into the phantasmagorical luridness of Fellini, with a splash of Bergmanesque darkness for shivery spice.
Sounds tantalizing, huh? The program indicates that the setting is “Sometime between awake and asleep,” and if Ms. Tharp had seen fit simply to keep us wandering through a shifting dreamscape, set to Mr. Dylan’s music, “The Times” might have passed muster as a really cool head trip for unregenerate hippies in search of natural highs. This would also have allowed each Dylan fan to bring his or her own interpretation to the murky goings-on, no doubt inspiring heated postperformance debates. (“No, man, don’t you see, what the little dog stands for is purity!”)
But Ms. Tharp is a precisionist in all things, and she brings to her storytelling the same exacting discipline that informs her choreography. Metaphoric images, which float miragelike when heard in song, are nailed down with literal visual equivalents. And highlights of the Dylan repertory (from “Mr. Tambourine Man” to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) take the place of plot-propelling dialogue.
In a show like “Mamma Mia!” (the Abba musical) this device can be kind of a hoot. But as you might expect of Ms. Tharp, this lady’s not for hooting.
The story — or fable, as Ms. Tharp prefers to call it — is about a creepy tyrant named Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma, who does indeed suggest Melville by way of Tim Burton) who rules over his traveling circus with a bullwhip. His employees include a whole passel of clowns, a lovely female runaway named Cleo (Lisa Brescia) and Ahrab’s son, Coyote (Michael Arden), who has the clean-scrubbed look of a sensitive high school sports star.
Will the idealistic Coyote take up his father’s whip to exploit the leadership-hungry clowns? Will he steal Cleo from Dad? Will he create a more benign world order? Hint: The show begins with Coyote looking soulfully into the audience to intone, with ominousness and dewy hope, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
The three principals share most of the major singing, through which we learn of both father’s and son’s feelings for Cleo (via a duet version of “Just Like a Woman”) and of Cleo’s lonely wistfulness (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”).
Ahrab’s cynical huckster’s world view is conveyed by his growling through numbers like “Desolation Row” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
In contrast, Coyote wonders “how many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man,” and Cleo senses a kindred spirit in the lad. Coyote is soon shyly proposing to Cleo that she “lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.” (That I stifled a groan at this point should be honored as an act of heroic restraint.) In the meantime, the clowns are growing restless and rebel against their cruel master, who is destined to find himself “knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
Are you still with me, brave reader? Ms. Tharp turns lyrics’ metaphors not only into flesh but also into flashlights, jump-ropes, stuffed animals and new brooms that sweep clean. (If there was a kitchen sink onstage, I missed it, which isn’t to say it wasn’t there.) Props rule in this magic kingdom, along with charadelike annotations of images.
Just mention, say, Cinderella in “Desolation Row,” and there she is, center stage. When the same song refers to Dr. Filth, there he is performing surgery (on a truly amazing contortionist who provides the show with its single most disturbing image).
When Ahrab breaks his son’s jeweled Cubist guitar, which he has been playing so spiritedly for “Like a Rolling Stone,” the mournful Cleo freezes the moment by singing “Everything Is Broken.” And as hedonism acquires mortal shadows in “Mr. Tambourine Man,” who should show up but a group of black-hooded dancers straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal.”
Of the three soloists, Mr. Arden comes closest to finding a compromise between Dylanesque twang and hearty melodiousness. But all the leading players suffer from being stranded between character and allegory. (I kept thinking of the woman in Christopher Durang’s parody of Sam Shepard who looked proudly at her son and said, “I gave birth to a symbol — and me with no college education.”)
Perversely, the songs seem to become more abstract — and more fixed in their metaphysical meanings — from being linked with individual characters. The orchestrations (by Michael Dansicker and Mr. Dylan) are often evocative of the original Dylan recordings, but I will say that this is the first time that it ever occurred to me that “Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35” could sound, in an instrumental bridge, like “The Trolley Song.”
The corps de clowns includes the extraordinary John Selya, who dazzled in “Movin’ Out,” as the circus strongman and leader of the clown rebellion. But while Mr. Selya looks as buff and agile as ever, he doesn’t get much chance to strut his kinetic stuff. There are a few glorious passages of Ms. Tharp’s signature, tight-muscled choreography, in which angular body tension becomes its own philosophical statement, an expression of raw existential frustration.
Mostly, though, Ms. Tharp concentrates on stylish variations on circus stunts — including stilt walking, tumbling and tightrope walking — some of them truly jaw-dropping. A trampolinelike surface has been built into the stage, allowing the dancers to appear to levitate.
But if the choreography at times defies gravity, the show itself may be the most earthbound work Ms. Tharp has produced. Even as the dancers seem to fly, Mr. Dylan’s lyrics are hammered, one by one, into the ground.
Nobody gets artists to jump through hoops better than Twyla Tharp. If theatergoers didn't already know that from decades of her boundary-smashing dance, they must have felt it when bodies hurtled themselves into perilous space in "Movin' Out," her thrilling dance-driven Billy Joel musical.
But in "The Times They Are A-Changin'," her fascinating but ultimately derailed circus musical with Bob Dylan songs, dancers literally do jump through hoops. They also tumble above the stage on trampolines, cavort on stilts, jump rope so fast we lose sight of the ropes and tie their limbs into shapes that mere mortals should not imagine.
For all the gorgeous and diabolical virtuosity, however, this 90-minute experiment, which opened last night, gets lost in its own messy - all right, preachy – allegorical ambitions.
Unlike the straightforward '60s narrative of "Movin' Out," this one attempts to be a dark, Fellini-esque fable that, according to the program, takes place "sometime between awake and sleep." Unlike the earlier all-dance triumph, this new hybrid awkwardly combines three carny characters who mostly sing Dylan's greatest hits (well) and seven clowns who mostly dance (fantastically well).
The result is a dance suite and concert ingeniously marbled together with an increasingly strained message: The good new generation overturns the bad old one. Until about midway through, Tharp is masterly at finding the thread for her dreamscape in Dylan's iconic songs, a surprising number of which are dotted with shadowy circus imagery. Without Dylan's growl, his music - played by a strong rock combo - shows itself to be richly melodic, varied and propulsivel danceable. As the contrasting scenes accumulate, we realize the career congruence of these two major artists, each of whom has influenced and evolved through so any different pop and poetic styles.
We first meet Coyote, played with clear-voiced, clear-eyed sweetness by Michael Arden, as he sneaks out from behind a hanging tarp in Santo Loquasto's nightmare of an old traveling circus to sing the title song, warning to parents, "What you can't understand ... your sons and your daughters are beyond your command."
Specifically, he's warning his sadistic father, the ringmaster Ahab. Thom Sesma is pure evil as the villain with a yellow smile, a cracking bullwhip, and yet, the capacity to feel alone with his snarl when his abused workers and son overturn his tyranny.
Loquasto, who also designed the grotesque and eclectic ragtag costumes, has given Ahab a wooden leg-brace decorated with flowers - a hint that he may once have been a more light-hearted fellow. Now he hops on one leg like an old rocker. He boasts "Just Like a Woman" after rough sex with Cleo (crisp and forthright Lisa Brescia), who wears a red satin dress over blue jeans and a black bra. Jason McDole, balancing on fingers and toes, finds the puppy and the mad dog as Cleo's faithful canine.
Things start getting worrisome around "Blowin' in the Wind," sung slowly with bathetic choir harmonies much like a kind of "Climb Every Mountain." But before that, Tharp pulls out the big powerful guns for "Masters of War." John Seyla, extraordinary in "Movin' Out," leads a furious zombie ensemble of men in unison, then throws his fist of a body into an upside-down split while someone puts a crash dummy between his legs.
Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, also from "Movin' Out," tosses himself backward, landing on one shoulder while Coyote sings "Mr. Tambourine Man." Tharp ends with a shiver, the line "I'll come followin' you" suddenly accompanied by a shadow-puppet skeleton.
When Ahab sings, "They are selling postcards of the hanging ... the circus is in town" from "Desolation Row," a terrifying contortionist (Jonathan Nosan) gets his legs pulled in impossible directions by Dylan's "Dr. Filth."
Tharp, a task-oriented perfectionist, has dreamed up extreme circus tricks, then transforms them from tricks to art. Even when she loses her way – which she definitely does - her failures are more interesting than most of themepark Broadway.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp has frequently and successfully looked to unorthodox musical inspirations to create her distinctive dance pieces, among them the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, David Byrne and, notably, Billy Joel in her first foray into musical theater, "Movin' Out." While that show was a danced narrative set to music performed live by a singer and band separated from the action, Tharp attempts to expand her range by integrating song and movement to the music of Bob Dylan in "The Times They Are A-Changin'." But the mercurial dance innovator slips up badly in a plodding, literal-minded fable that's vibrant and busy but also chaotic and narratively incoherent.
The path of "Movin' Out" from problematic Chicago tryouts through extensive tinkering to Broadway success has been widely chronicled. Even during its three-year Gotham run, the Vietnam-era dance drama grew immeasurably stronger as its war themes gained in currency and its dancers (many of them with the production on and off from its debut) evolved deeper into their roles. Rather than showing wear as most productions do, when the musical closed in December, it arguably had never been tighter and more energized or its emotional impact more visceral.
But after its tepid reception at San Diego's Old Globe in February, "Times" appears to have made little progress en route to New York. Watching the unengaging mess onstage at the Brooks Atkinson, it's hard to imagine how it could have been helped. The impression is that Tharp's auteurial command prevented anyone from pointing out that the concept is just plain lame.
Unlike Joel, a "piano man" whose songs tell self-contained stories that could serviceably be manipulated into a larger narrative, Dylan comes with a daunting load of iconic baggage attached. The singer-songwriter has been a figurehead for countercultural America, for the civil rights and anti-war movements, for the spirit of protest and unrest. Harnessing all that and a stylistically restless five-decade career in popular music to a silly story about a circus owner, his son and the animal trainer they both love feels like random trivialization -- regardless of the numerous references in Dylan's lyrics to circuses, carnivals and clowns.
Set in a dreamscape (the program indicates it's "somewhere between awake and asleep"), the show broadly interprets Dylan's political and social commentary through the metaphor of Captain Ahrab's Circus. Like his Melvillean inspiration, the peg-legged owner and ringmaster (Thom Sesma) is a tyrannical overlord running a ramshackle operation of enslavement and brutalization. His idealistic son, Coyote (Michael Arden), responds to the winds of change by seeking escape from this oppressive world. He competes with his father for the affections of sorrowful performer Cleo (Lisa Brescia, the second replacement in an underdeveloped role) and gradually participates in the whip-cracking despot's downfall, ushering in a kinder, gentler regime of dignity and humanity. Ho hum.
The generic father-son conflict is limiting enough; the greater problem is that Dylan's songs are introspective compositions generally not suited to the emotional overkill of Broadway-style reinterpretation. (Michael Dansicker arranged, adapted and supervised the music, sharing orchestration duties with Dylan, which mystifyingly indicates the latter must have approved the approach at some point.)
Playing ill-defined archetypes, the three leads work hard and sing well, but "Blowin' in the Wind" is simply an aberration when mutated into a pumped-up, overwrought anthem.
Tharp also has no idea how to make the songs dynamic, either planting the singers in declamatory deadlock or having them stride about aimlessly while assorted clowns skip, tumble, flip and bounce on the trampoline surfaces of Santo Loquasto's junkyard set. Even when the songs do summon some emotional intensity, all the awkward, hokey buffoonery going on in the background (in unfortunate Leigh Bowery-esque costumes and makeup) smothers it.
Much as the thematic link is evident and the visualization of Dylan's lyrics often prosaic (a shabby wench sweeps the floor while Ahrab croons "Desolation Row"; Coyote gets high on a crescent moon singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" to the accompaniment of a gamboling clown; Ahrab's demise is heralded by "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," with ninja-like figures wielding light sabers), the narrative thread is feeble. Without linking dialogue, the show lurches from one number to the next without flow or plot development, seeming more like a circus-themed revue than an actual story.
What's most disappointing is the dancing. Choreographing against the rhythm is a hallmark of Tharp's style, but in "The Times" there's often no correlation between music and movement. The buoyant physicality and anarchic elasticity of her work -- at its best, more like spontaneous corporeal expression than steps that are studied, refined and repeated -- is almost marginal here.
The ensemble -- which includes "Movin' Out" veterans John Selya and Ron Todorowski -- is too rarely marshaled into full flights of compelling athleticism, and the mostly non-dancing leads too often perform separately to the corps, giving the feeling of elements lumped together with inadequate focus rather than organically intertwined.
On the plus side, the five-piece band is terrific and Donald Holder's lighting has an arresting, gloomy beauty. But that's not much to take away from the meeting of two such idiosyncratic artists as Tharp and Dylan.