KPBS AIRDATE: February 17, 2006
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I thought when I heard that Twyla Tharp was creating a dance-ical to Bob Dylan music was, ‘You can’t dance to Dylan.’ Well, I was right. The biggest disappointment of “The Times They are a-Changin’” at the Old Globe, is that there’s virtually no dance in the show, which is probably bound for Broadway, though it seems seriously un-ready. The internationally acclaimed, iconoclastic director-choreographer mined gold with the music of Billy Joel in the startlingly original, dance-happy “Movin’ Out,” where the story was excellently integrated with the time and temper of the tunes.
But here, Tharp has opted for a tired theme and circus acrobatics instead of bona fide dance. The only surprise is the number of times Dylan mentions the word ‘circus’ in his varied songs, but never does it seem to be as concrete a reference as Tharp’s interpretation. The narrative, muddy and ill-defined, concerns a ramshackle traveling circus, run by the abusive, autocratic Captain A-rab. Young Coyote is constantly battling his father, over the running of the place and the attentions of the sexy lion-tamer, Cleo. She’s the least fleshed-out character, who if you follow the lyrics, may or may not be married to one of them and may or may not leave the circus and then return. Coyote definitely departs, falls on hard times, and then, after his father kicks the circus bucket following a “Maggie’s Farm” mutiny, Coyote comes back and all’s right with the world. What any of this has to do with the genius of Dylan’s poetry or the profound influence he had on a generation and an era is beyond me.
But the music is superb, with 30 songs presented in Michael Dansicker’s interesting and unpredictable arrangements, played by a crack 5-piece band, appropriately heavy on guitar and harmonica. Bonus for the non-Dylanite: you can actually understand all the words. The songs are especially well delivered by Thom Sesma, who has a distinctly Dylanesque look, with just the right gritty, grainy vocal quality and scrappy, hardscrabble demeanor. With his gimpy, Ahab leg, Sesma nails all the regretful numbers like the title tune, “Forever Young” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Michael Arden brings a hip sensibility to the more youthful songs like “..a Rolling Stone.” Jenn Collella has a decidedly country look and sound that just doesn’t fit, and none of the dancers should have been asked to sing. Anyway, they’re too busy twirling ropes and hoola hoops, stilt-walking and turning cartwheels, bouncing off the trampolines up- and down-stage, and frequently providing distractions from the songs. The design is provocative and the lighting is outstanding. But it all gave me the Subterranean Homesick Blues – for pure, unadulterated Dylan and unalloyed, choreographic Tharp.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.