The Times They Are A’Changin’
It’s a bad sign when the curtain call is more entertaining than the show that that precedes it. Unfortunately, this statement applies to The Times They Are A-Changin’, the disappointing attempt at a musical playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
A combination of Bob Dylan’s music and Twyla Tharp’s choreography, the show is described in the Playbill as taking place in a dreamlike state, “somewhere between awake and sleep,” at a circus. Captain Ahrab, a cruel, crippled dictator, runs the circus, aided by his sensitive son, Coyote. Ahrab has been sleeping with Cleo, the lovely runaway who is performing with the circus, but realizing his cruelty, she leaves him. Coyote, struggling to break free from his father, soon falls in love with Cleo and attempts to find his place in the world without his father’s expectations burdening him.
Set on a minimalist stage, with trampolines at the front and back of the sets, the show consists only of music and dance, without any dialogue. However, attempting to discern a plot from this musical mumbo-jumbo is such a challenge that it distracts from any aesthetic pleasure that this show provides.
And there no lack of aesthetic pleasure in this show. Michael Arden, who plays Coyote, has a charming, wide-eyed innocence to him. Combined with his boyish good looks, he is quite a pretty addition to the stage. Thom Sesma’s Captain Ahrab carries a rakish sexuality that, underneath his layers of makeup, comes through at certain moments. And Lisa Brescia’s Cleo contains a slender, waiflike grace.
It is the company of dancers, however, that truly make this show worth seeing at all. Their skill and talent is extraordinary and it is they who demonstrate Tharp’s true talent as a choreographer. At certain moments they are able to demonstrate the metaphors that Tharp is attempting to communicate. However, these moments are few and far between.
The success that Tharp achieved with Movin Out, the musical shaped from Billy Joel’s songs, is not accomplished here. In Movin Out, the plot was minimal and it was the emotion that drove the dance. There was no hero or villain. Dylan’s songs also contain that ambiguity, and they do not define who are the hero and villain. However, setting them to a plot like this one requires definition, and it is unable to be maintained in this performance.
The actors put forth a valiant effort, but the songs assigned to their characters to do not enhance them at all. Coyote’s defiant melody, “Like a Rolling Stone,” complete with a guitar that he does not play, should have helped to characterize him, but instead is merely amusing. When he attempts to seduce Cleo with, “Lay Lady Lay,” the only word to describe it is hilarious. Captain Ahrab has a bit more success with his songs, with “Desolation Row” enhancing his villianry, and “Simple Twist of Fate” softening his character a bit, bringing out whatever bit of humanity might be in him. However, Captain Ahrab and Cleo’s rendition of, “Man Gave Name to All the Animals,” is merely bizarre.
One would think that this show would appeal to Dylan fans. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a timeless song. Lines like, “How many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died” are all too applicable to today. However, hearing it sung as a choral arrangement for a Broadway musical distracts from the lyrics instead of enhancing them. Irregardless, it is one of the few honest moments in this haphazard confusion of a show.
There is too much happening onstage and it distracts from the power of Dylan’s lyrics. Near death, Ahrab’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” has a moment or two of authenticity, but when dancers join him on stage, waving flashlights through the air, it is lost. Without them, the song might have held much more meaning.
With a happy ending that neatly ties up all loose ends and leaves everybody smiling, one has to wonder, with all of the possible productions to come from Dylan’s songs, why this one? Why a circus? Dylan’s lyrics are loaded with potential stories – politics, drugs, sex and love. The possibilities are endless, and here it feels like they are sold short.
The one consolation from the show is the dancers. The members of this extremely talented company walk tightropes, bounce on trampolines, and essentially remain airborne for the majority of the show. The acrobatic feats accomplished by this dance company are extraordinary. If only the audience wasn’t distracted from them by this thing that is trying to be a musical.
It is after the curtains are closed and the dancers are alone onstage, performing one or two final leaps after taking a bow that they finally receive the moment they deserve. It’s too bad the musical had to come before it.