The Times They Are A-Changin'
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 1, 2006
About midway through The Times They Are A-Changin', eight members of the ensemble gather downstage and stand in a V-formation singing Bob Dylan's anti-war anthem "Blowin' in the Wind." They sing it well; the words ring resonant and clear for us to listen to: "How many deaths will it take 'til he knows / That too many people have died?" It's a stirring moment.
But it's one that any number of directors could have fashioned; it's inordinately disappointing to be the emotional center of a new theatre work by Twyla Tharp. Where's the movement? Where's the interpretation?
Alas, that's the problem throughout this very unsatisfying new musical—though it was conceived, directed and choreographed by dance great Tharp, there's precious little dancing in The Times They Are A-Changin'; and though about two dozen Dylan songs form the spine of the piece, spanning a variety of that mercurial minstrel's eclectic career phases and styles, there's a dearth of inspiration emanating from the stage. The show proper only lasts about 70 minutes (it's padded out by a finale and then two rounds of curtain calls to clock in at an hour and a half). And much of it feels dismaying inert, with a singer or two standing stock still and performing one of Dylan's songs while—believe it or not—nothing else happens on stage.
There is a narrative, sort of: the play takes place at Captain Ahrab's Circus, where the despotic owner/ringleader, who has a pegleg in deference to his name, rules heavy-handedly over his troupe of clowns and his son, Coyote. A beautiful, independent-minded young woman named Cleo arrives, capturing the attention of both father and son, and helps awaken in Coyote feelings of assertiveness and rebellion. These play themselves out in classic fashion, and the Captain (read him as a tyrant, or the establishment, or—if the show's title is to be relied upon—the status quo) is overthrown. Tharp leaves us with a question that she won't/can't answer: Will the new order be any better?
It's strong, valuable stuff, and Dylan's oeuvre supports it. Among the songs performed, after the opening title song, are "Like a Rolling Stone," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Masters of War," "Lay Lady Lay," "Simple Twist of Fate," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and "Forever Young": you can discern the arc just in the ordering I've provided, I think.
What's missing is the raw emotion and energy that characterized Tharp's first musical Movin' Out. That show spilled over with love, anger, and joy; this one opts for a lower-key moodiness that's exemplified by Santo Loquasto's expressionistic circus set, all in dark hues, and Donald Holder's subdued lighting. The dancing, when it comes, always feels abbreviated: just when it feels like a big breakout moment of sheer magic is about to explode on stage, Tharp pulls back and the vibrancy disintegrates. She's made an odd choice of limiting her dance corps to six men and one woman, which means that the male dancers have nobody to partner; there's consequently a sameness to the choreography, with the performers lining up in different combinations but not particularly going anywhere in the individual pieces.
She's also assigned the show's only big romantic dance sequence to Coyote and Cleo, who are played by Michael Arden and Lisa Brescia—excellent singers, but alas just competent dancers: the fire and excitement that ought to be generated in this number (and would be if, say, supporting player Ron Todorwoski were doing it) is entirely missing.
Arden has what amounts to the star part here, and his performances of some of the Dylan songs are enticing. Brescia is more than his match, and delivers a gorgeous rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" at the top of the show. As Captain Ahrab, Thom Sesma is excellent, fully embodying many of the ideas of Tharp's concept. But the most charismatic members of the company are the dancers, including the powerful and graceful John Selya, who has very little to do, and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, who impresses whenever he takes the stage.
In the end, for me, the high points of The Times They Are A-Changin' aren't exciting or frequent enough to allow me to call this a success. I'll leave it to pundits and historians to try to guess where this promising concept went astray, and will instead look forward to Tharp's next project finding her more felicitously inspired.