The Times They Are A-Changin'

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, NYC - October 2006
Review by John Kenrick

What's worse than another jukebox musical? How about a tedious jukebox musical with artistic pretensions?

The Times They Are A-Changin' throws together ninety minutes worth of Bob Dylan songs -- not the worst idea for this sort of show.  The trouble is that Twyla Tharp, who scored a surprise triumph with Movin' Out, has no clue how to weave this set of ditties into a coherent whole. Mind you, there is nothing inherently theatrical about Dylan's songs, so one cannot help but wonder why so many millions of dollars had to be blown on this half-baked project. The producers insist that this show is an "artistic vision" -- pity it isn't at least some sort of functional entertainment.

There is a sort of a plot which, thanks to a total lack of dialogue makes so little sense on stage that they've included an explanation in the program -- which doesn't help much. It seems that there is a "dreamscape" circus owned by Captain Ahab (Thom Sesma), a lame and embittered ringmaster who spends his days beating his handsome teenage son Coyote (a barefooted Michael Arden), alternatively kissing and abusing his girlfriend Cleo (Lisa Brescia), and randomly kicking and smacking his employees.

Why anyyone puts up with Ahab's violent nonsense is never explained. Things change when Coyote and Cleo begin an affair and the suddenly aggressive clowns kill Ahab -- except for one terminally co-dependent clown who sheds tears as he snuggles Ahab's abandoned leg brace. Coyote's initial anger at his father's murder dissipates after one rueful ballad, and all is forgiven as he takes control of the circus and sails with Cleo into a shower of colored confetti.

What is the point of it all? Damned if I know. One could blame the muddle on a lack of dialogue, but with such unclear motivations, I fear that dialogue would only have made matters worse. It also would make The Times They Are A-Changin' longer, and at ninety minutes running time it is an hour and a half too long already.

Tharp might have given this nonsense some semblance of theatrical life by infusing it with the sort of high energy choreography that kept Movin' Out afloat, but this time around she is less interested in dance than in circus tricks. Clowns cavort and a contortionist contorts as the three soloists try valiantly to do justice to Dylan's lyrics. All too often, those lyrics are lost thanks to loud rock arrangements and some of the clumsiest amplification to be heard on a Broadway stage in years.

Since the five piece rock band is stuck on top of the set, Tharpe has opted to cover the orchestra pit with a trampoline, which most of the cast bounces on at the least provocation. Throw in Santo Loquato's relentlessly dreary sets and costumes, abetted by Donald Holder's gloomy lighting, and the whole thing looks like a hung-over rip-off of Cirque du Soliel.

In the three leads, Arden, Sesma and Brescia sing their hearts out, but since there is no dialogue and the song lyrics rarely reflect the so-called plot, it is impossible to classify what they are doing as any form of acting. The rest of the ensemble works their tails off -- literally, in the case of one who plays a frisky circus pooch -- but the program gives us no way of telling which of them is who. They get one or two opportunities to show their dance chops, but spend far more time either getting mistreated by Ahab or bouncing on the orchestra pit.

I wish I could say that The Times They Are A-Changin' is the last of the jukebox musicals, but such is not the case. However, I am willing to make a prediction. Sometime in the (hopefully) not too distant future, someone is going to come up with the idea of doing a Broadway musical where the songs have been specifically written to fit a compelling libretto. Until then, we will have to endure more of these jukebox musicals that once would not have passed muster in Las Vegas.

According to the program notes "The Times They Are A-Changin' uses prophecy, parable, metaphor, accusation and confession." Well, all that high-falutin' language cannot camoflage the fact the this show ultimately adds up to a needless waste of time, money and talent. What they needed was a libretto, not a trampoline! This isn't art -- it is just plain boring.

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