The Times They Are A-Changin' Conceived by Twyla Tharp. Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan. Directed and Choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Music Arranged, Adapted and Supervised by Michael Dansicker. Scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Orchestrations by Michael Dansicker and Bob Dylan. Cast: Michael Arden, Thom Sesma, and Lisa Brescia, Lisa Gajda, Neil Haskell, Jason McDole, Charlie Hesyba-Hodges, Jonathan Nosan, John Selya, Ron Todorowski, Alexander Brady, John Herrera, Alaine Kashian, Katie Klaus, Keith Kühl, Marty Lawson, Joseph Putignano, Cary Tedder, Jason Wooten.
The revolution will not be uncivilized if Twyla Tharp has anything to say about it. Trampolines, jump ropes, teddy bears, and oversized beach balls might not be the expected weapons of any counterculture's uprising, but if you really need to bludgeon your elders, preciousness will do in a pinch.
These items, and so many more, materialize from the suffocatingly thin air enveloping the precision mayhem in The Times They Are A-Changin', Twyla Tharp's implosive stage interpretation of Bob Dylan's music that just opened at the Brooks Atkinson. That Tharp needed to fill the play's 90 dawdling minutes with props, specialty acts, and even more specialty effects ("Mr. Tambourine Man" sung while sitting on a floating moon, an ensemble member doing an extended pantomime as a dog) suggests a lack of inspiration with Dylan's catalog that ultimately proves this show's biggest stumbling block.
No, lightning hasn't struck twice for the choreographic impresario who shepherded the dance drama Movin' Out to supersonic success four years ago. I was not especially fond of the Billy Joel-inspired Movin' Out when it opened on Broadway in 2002: It struck me as a rather obtuse, self-interested ballet with little business on Broadway. But it moved effortlessly, was beautifully realized in dance terms, and its artistry was unquestionably evident.
This discordant spectacle seems to exist only to distance itself from that one, and thus has no opportunity to engage on its own terms, assuming it even can: Tharp has given The Times They Are A-Changin' the appearance and feel of an everted haunted house, complete with an ensemble resembling homeless people squatting in a Halloween costume rental store, seldom an enticing way to spend an evening.
The problem is, Tharp didn't intend them to be ghouls, but rather clowns in the cataclysmic circus of Captain Ahrab, in and around which most of the show is set. Rather than applying a literal story (a la Movin' Out), Tharp has adopted a more abstract view of Dylan's songs: She dissected them to determine their elementary themes, and then structured a basic coming-of-age story around them with its backdrop a freak show touring the Fifth Circle of Hell.
Though it seems curious at first, Tharp's choice of the antiquated circus form as the locale against which today's youth can fight for their emancipation does make a certain kind of sense. There is a curious relationship there with Dylan's songs, which resonated with social unrest and which pleaded for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in ways literary, worldly, and even poetic: Both involve younger people conflicted about their places in a life they didn't ask for, and don't really understand.
That's essentially the story here: A young man named Coyote falls in love with a runaway girl, Cleo (Lisa Brescia), but is dissuaded from pursuing her - or any other desires of his own - by his controlling father, Ahrab himself (Thom Sesma). After tragic circumstances allow Coyote to break away, he realizes that maybe his father contributed something valuable to humanity after all.
But unlike in Movin' Out, or any worthwhile ballet or dance musical, the dancing here carries no discernible narrative weight. It's all ornamental, mostly for the clowns and not the leads, who seem to exist more outside the story than within it. The cavorting, which includes plenty of play with streamers, tightrope walking, and enough gaudy props to make Susan Stroman swoon, doesn't even comment directly on the action, but instead provides visual counterpoints that are supposed to draw us into the world Coyote is trying to escape.
Paradoxically, this show's story (such as it is) isn't hard to follow, as relying on only three archetypal figures relieves the crushing burden of confusing characterization. But the overall effect is more alienating than involving, and Santo Loquasto's sets and costumes, which generally look like they were constructed from the discarded remnants of World War II parachutes (except for Brescia's bizarre, unflattering ensemble of a red dress and jeans), are ugly enough to prevent the show from looking good. The five-man band under Henry Aronson's musical direction at least ensures it sounds good.
Sesma unlocks some impressive menace in Ahrab, singing with dark fire and recalling Jim Broadbent's dingy, devilish emcee from Moulin Rouge! Brescia, who assumed the role of Cleo during previews, is still trying to justify her character's romantic and rebellious inclinations. But she possesses an innocent likeability that makes her stand out from the circus's other grotesque denizens (including Movin' Out veterans John Selya and Ron Todorowski), who all dance and tumble expertly but look as if they woke up on the wrong side of Vidal Sassoon.
The billed Coyote, Michael Arden, was out sick at the final critic's preview, and was spelled by understudy Jason Wooten. While Arden's presence and voice in past shows suggest he'd do just fine here, it's difficult to imagine him much better than Wooten: With a deceptively wide-eyed and acquiescent manner, Wooten sings and moves with rough-edged but firm grace that ideally captures the spirit of a young man ready to break free of his father and venture into adulthood. He embodies as electrically as possible all the yearning for independence, and desire not to disappoint his lifelong role model, that Coyote must have to provide the show a shimmering, concentrated life force.
Tharp, in a way, is in a similar position: Hailed for a work that excited while challenging preexisting conceptions of both jukebox musicals and pop ballet, she's been forced to follow up with something radically different to protect her status as a free-thinking theatrical artist. But envisioning her as the young rebel is the only way to get much out of The Times They Are A-Changin' - she's otherwise distorted Dylan's voice of the disrespected masses into something with less impact than silence: a rambunctiously ridiculous musical.