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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'
at the Brooks Atkinson, New York

DESOLATION ROW
By David Lefkowitz

  Michael Arden (top) and Thom Sesma in The Times They Are A-Changin' (Photo: Richard Termine. Press Contact: Shaeffer-Coyle Public Relations)

How wise director-choreographer Twyla Tharp was to title her latest dancical, THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN', since that song warns writers and critics to "keep your eyes wide / the chance won't come again."  Verily, this critic's eyes had to fight to stay open, and any chance this half-baked mess has of lasting past December is slimmer than sheet metal from cannery row.

I should admit up front that Tharp's previous Broadway excursion, MOVIN' OUT, didn't reach me the way it obviously grabbed other writers, critics and thousands of audience members during its healthy hit run.   Since I'm no dance aficionado, I found the courtship rituals and mating mambos in the first half of that Billy Joel tuner repetitious and insufficiently dramatic.   Nevertheless, MOVIN' OUT had a clear thru-line with an emotional payoff and made intelligent use of its pop score.  Conversely, the Dylan-derived TIMES feels almost insultingly cavalier about some of the greatest songs of the modern era.   Though little of Tharp's revue is downright embarrassing, it's hard not to wince when the show's cadre of circus performers move downstage and exhort us to clap along(!) with "Like a Rolling Stone."   Sure, Twyla, and for your next trick, would you like us to add shoobee-doobees to "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll?"

It didn't have to be this way.  Not only is Bob Dylan's canon both extensive and eclectic enough to support a myriad of theatrical possibilities, but carny imagery has always had a place in his work, from the midget and sword swallower in "Ballad of a Thin Man" to the literal circus in "Desolation Row."   Perhaps that's why the latter song creates one of the few moments in TIMES that fully works: as the vicious ringmaster croons a verse of it, we see a pain-faced contortionist twisting himself on a doctor's table.  

Elsewhere, however, the gulf between song and staging proves wider than the distance between the Grand Coulee Dam and the Capitol.  For example, the Zampano-like ringmaster (Thom Sesma) spends most of the evening physically abusing all his employees, among them his girlfriend, Cleo (Lisa Brescia).  When she musters the gumption to walk out, she sings the solo, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," which includes the line, "I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind / you could've done better..."    Not unkind?  He smacks her around, beats up her colleagues and strangles a dog.  What exactly would she consider abuse?

But it ain't no use in taking all this too literally, I realize.  And such inconsistencies wouldn't matter if TIMES had an air of wonder in its staging or a sense of beauty in its presence.   But Santo Loquasto's set design feels barren and makeshift, and watching non-funny clowns bounce on trampolines for 90 minutes just ain't my cup of meat.  Yes, there are jugglers, stiltwalkers and big-ball-balancers on-hand to lend the appearance of something happening, but they're all endlessly milling about without a sense of tension, thrills or even comic relief.

So sans real dancing, a decent plot (eventually the carnies rise up and send sadistic Captain Ahrab to a hellish end) or a Cirquey sense of spectacle, all that's left to judge is a concert of truncated Dylan songs.   Those are still great, of course, and Thom Sesma has a raspy baritone that effectively straddles both Broadway and rock idioms.  We get to hear "Just Like a Woman" as a duet, a bouncy "Rainy Day Women" and a charmingly ramshackle "Please Mrs. Henry."   Yet even the better numbers come nowhere near the originals, and I really didn't need to witness "Mr. Tambourine Man" with Ahrab's son (Michael Arden) sitting<

 


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