Nov 2, 2006

Stuck Inside a Theater With the Jukebox Blues Again

Actually that headline’s not fair. I liked The Times They Are A-Changin’, Twyla Tharp’s circus-land take on the Bob Dylan song catalogue, a lot, lot more than I thought I would—which is to say, I never felt the urge to poke out my eyes with my pen and run screaming down 47th Street.

It’s a failure, no question, but its central disappointment is not just that it doesn’t succeed as a Dylan show but that it even fails on its own extremely odd terms—which, as you've probably heard by now, involve stringing Dylan tunes into a sort of carny fable of multigenerational conflict or whatever. With clowns. What’s so frustrating about this is, unlike the songbooks of so many other fine writers of the same era—Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson et al—who have been sullied or overblown by Broadway treatments, Dylan's songs often contain a crucial seed of drama—they’re not simply static mood pieces or straight-up narratives. The best ones—“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Idiot Wind,” “Dark Eyes”—move; they have a sense of journey and arrival. What startled me most, even moved me, about Tharp’s bungled, often cutesy, but entirely sincere half-vision of a show is that it actually fitfully demonstrates the theatrical potential of Dylan’s best work.

Two examples struck me hard: First was a spooky, low-lit, somber rendition of “Desolation Row,” which, yes, has a literalized Cinderella figure “sweeping up” and a patient twisting under Dr. Filth’s sinister care (I’m so thankful the verse about “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” was cut). But unlike the hideous God-on-stilts who starts off the throwaway rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited,” the images of “Desolation Row” are shadowy, half-glimpsed, suggestively gestural, and they cohere into a jaundiced, surreal tableau that I didn’t think the song could bear (again, lyrical trims certainly help here).

The other knockout is “Simple Twist of Fate,” whose sophistication on every level I’ve always taken for granted, but which rings home here with a force nothing else in the show approaches. That descending bass line, rising melody, and final crashing, graceful cadence—it's brutal and beautiful, and to my eyes and ears almost felt like the germ of the whole show. For once the show’s ostensible love triangle “story” sets the scene and gets out of the way.

It's not coincidental that both of these renditions come courtesy of the fortysomething Thom Sesma, a magnetic, Tom Waitsian figure who gives Broadway flash and volume its due without skimping on grit and intimacy. Not only that, but he trusts the songs; he does a lot less of the kind of actory pop restyling that bedevils the singing of young, ardent Michael Arden, who delivers both lighter and preachier numbers (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” the title song) with a self-consciously offbeat, I’m-not-going-to-sing-the-melody-in-time-even-once-'cause-that-would-be-too-easy phrasing. The one song he sings more or less straight, “Masters of War,” is all the more powerful for it. And I mostly admired the way Lisa Brescia, all charm and professionalism as the obligatory female love interest, solves the intriguing problem of what notes you sing exactly, and how, over Dylan’s often-sketchy, elusive original melodies. She and Arden handle this problem quite nicely on the deceptively simple-sounding but quite challenging country romancer, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (just try singing those last three syllables right, let alone the "mockingbird" bridge).

That last song shows another side of Dylan that’s remarkably suited to the stage: the smiling showman. Some of his tunes fit eerily well into the slick pop-Broadway stylings of today (“Just Like a Woman,” “I Believe in You”). Ultimately this troubled Times, with its moments of outright desperation (“God Gave Names to All the Animals”?), its almost irrelevant choreography and tumbling, its junky Cirque-du-Soleil-in-the-dumpster aesthetic (I kind of almost liked that, actually), and its offensively shiny-happy ending, feels less like a travesty of sacred texts than a huge missed opportunity for a ripping good entertainment. Dylan and dance may not be a good marriage, but Dylan and musical theater—I wouldn’t count it out.

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