Volume 19 | Issue 26 | November 10 - 16, 2006


Conceived, directed & choreographed by Twyla Tharp
Music & lyrics by Bob Dylan
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 W. 47th St.

Photo by Richard Termine

Twyla Tharp turns Dylan’s oeuvre into a sureal circus in “The Times They Are A-Changin.’ ”

Bob Dylan revisited

By Scott Harrah

Twyla Tharp won a Tony in 2003 for her “jukebox musical” tribute to Billy Joel, “Movin’ Out.” That show used a thin but coherent storyline about America from Vietnam to the new millennium as the backdrop for Joel’s pop classics and Tharp’s innovative choreography. In her new show, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Tharp uses the songbook of folk legend Bob Dylan as a forum for her dance pieces by telling a tale about a “dreamscape” circus. The circus is run by ringmaster Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma), the name obviously culled from Dylan’s song “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and he is described in the show’s Playbill as a “tyrannical leader crippled by greed.”

The plot revolves around Captain Ahrab and his rebellious son, Coyote (Michael Arden), a runaway girl named Cleo (Lisa Brescia), and a bunch of surrealistic clowns. There is minimal dialogue, with mostly dance to tell the story. Choosing the songs of an artist not known for bouncy, light pop songs to be the score for a Broadway musical is quite a challenge, but the talented cast members do their best to breathe new life into Dylan’s classics. Thom Sesma both looks like Dylan and recreates the singer’s raspy vocal presentation well. Michael Arden and Lisa Brescia also have wonderful voices and do Dylan’s songs justice. But despite the cornucopia of talent onstage, they can’t overcome the fact that there is often too much happening at once onstage, leaving audiences with a colorful but ultimately confusing pastiche of a rock opera fused with modern dance on an acid trip.

In a musical, it’s common knowledge that during a solo number (particularly a slow ballad), nothing should distract the audience’s attention away from the person singing onstage. For example, Michael Arden beautifully sings “Mr. Tambourine Man” while sitting atop a crescent moon suspended above the stage, and soon a skeleton shadow puppet is seen behind a curtain.

What this has to do with the song is anyone’s guess. In addition, a dancer twirls around the stage and one doesn’t know whom to look at—the singer swinging on the moon or the dancer interpreting the song. Tharp, who conceived, choreographs and directs the show, may have had better success propelling the story forward if she had let someone else direct and point out such flaws.

The show has all of Dylan’s best-known songs, from “Lay, Lady, Lay” to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The actors’ singing is well done, the onstage band is tight and melodically focused, and the dance ensemble effectively portrays Tharp’s avant-garde characters, from circus contortionists to trampoline artists to a man in a dog suit. By the show’s end, however, Tharp sabotages her own work by placing far too much emphasis on the dancers, using Dylan’s songs as mere aural wallpaper instead of making them the primary focus of the entire work. The result seems more like a busy, confusing hippie version of Cirque du Soleil than a musical. With just a bit of tweaking, however, this could still be a decent musical. Instead, the show is so obsessed with glorifying its messenger, it overshadows the actual message and what should have been the true star of “The Times They Are A-Changin’”: Bob Dylan’s musical legacy.

Editor’s note: This show is now “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It closes Nov. 19.

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