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.