Arriving on Broadway trailing poisonous word of mouth from its out-of-town tryout, The Times They Are A-Changin' could well be left before long, uh, blowin' in the wind - which is by no means to suggest that Twyla Tharp's first Broadway dancical since Movin' Out is without interest. As it happens, I caught the show within days of the London premiere of Dirty Dancing, two new productions that could be said to represent polar opposites. On the one hand, there's the adaptation-by-numbers approach taken to a West End product whose self-evident calling card is the 1987 movie that gives the show its title: Dirty Dancing is the film on stage - no more, and frequently a lot less. By way of total contrast then comes Tharp's wholesale cooption of the back catalog of Bob Dylan, here entrusted to an idiosyncratic, truly revolutionary theatre artist who on this occasion has careered down a blind alley, taking some very talented collaborators with her.
Might Times have turned out otherwise? Hard to say, since Tharp is one maverick unlikely to listen to too many opinions and voices beyond her own. As it is, one applauds her desire not simply to fashion Movin' Out part 2, especially since a sizeable portion of Dylan's moody, restless songbook would match up perfectly well with the Vietnam era saga that unfolded in the previous, hugely successful Tony-winner. But just as one tends to cringe when filmmakers announce that a certain project came to them in a dream, one has to wonder at the advisability of a show set, we're told in the Playbill, "somewhere between awake and asleep" - a consciousness that is synonymous, or so it seems, with 90 minutes of conceptual illogic crossed with perverse literalmindedness. And if you don't respond? Hey, guess what: the creators have a built-in defense in proffering their work as a dreamscape.
I'm all for allusive and elusive stagecraft, and Tharp's immersion in the rules of dance instead of theatre virtually demands from the outset that she march to a different narrative drummer from the Broadway norm. But the problem with Times may be that it doesn't dare enough. While the circus setting and anything-goes environment hints at the hallucinatory theatrical force field of, say, the Roberts Wilson or Lepage, Tharp too often settles for a series of visual illustrations of some terrific songs, an approach that is as clumsy as it frequently is clownish.
Most surprising for Tharp aficionadoes will be the comparative absence of dance, the emphasis here given over to acrobatics and buffoonery. There are inflatable dolls, a stilt-walking God and a crescent moon by way of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. (As for the beachballs on offer during "Like A Rolling Stone," didn't Tharp see Good Vibrations?) But the intended resonances, whatever they may have been, instead devolve into a series of set pieces in which such Tharp regulars as Ron Todorowski and Movin' Out Tony nominee John Selya are lost in an antic blur that comes to rest only when the three non-dancing principals start singing one or another Dylan standard. For the record, they are Jason Wooten (replacing leading man Michael Arden at the matinee caught), a fiery Lisa Brescia, and a growly Thom Sesma, who at times sounds just like Tom Waits. The entire company are so many willing participants in what is likely to be the season's greatest folly - and which, very much unlike Dirty Dancing, is never dull.