The Times They Are A-Changin': Oh, What A Circus
Whatever you do, don't go to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre expecting to see a musical. Because if you're expecting to see a musical you'll probably be expecting a well developed plot, songs that advance the action and define the characters and clearly focused direction. That's not what you're getting here and I suspect that was never the intention. But if you go in expecting to see a ballet where the principle characters (and sometimes the ensemble) do a lot of singing, you may actually find yourself smiling and laughing and having a perfectly wonderful time at Twyla Tharp's The Times They Are A-Changin'; a sweet and frisky show with a lot of heart, a touch of danger, and some terrific performances.
Yes, the music and lyrics are taken from the Bob Dylan catalogue, but this is not a political piece about civil rights, unjust war and trying to score with Joan Baez. Classics like "Blowin' In The Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Like A Rolling Stone" are played for their surface lyricism and attractive melodies and are not presented to exploit their literal meaning or historical subtext. Unlike musical theatre, where words are necessary to carry the drama, this ballet focuses more on the emotional pull of the music and the general feeling the lyrics convey. For example, there's no character named Maggie and there's no farm in the show, but the song "Maggie's Farm," used as a celebration of freedom from an oppressive employer, fits very nicely. Bob Dylan himself is involved with the production, having co-written the orchestrations with music arranger and adapter Michael Dansicker, so I would assume he has no problem with the way his songs are being used.
And though the program notes use words like "dreamscape", "prophecy" and "parable" and tells you the setting is "Sometime between awake and asleep," I'd ignore all that pretentious artsy language if I were you. And I wouldn't bother with the plot synopsis either. All you need to know is that there's a young innocent named Coyote (Michael Arden) and there's a cute girl named Cleo (Lisa Brescia) and a sadistic older guy, Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma) who runs a dilapidated circus. Twyla forgive me, but I really don't think the piece goes any deeper than that simple surface rivalry between youth and age, and I had a great time without any thoughts of "images and ideas of who we are and who it is possible to be."
The gorgeously grotesque visuals provided by Santo Loquasto (sets and costumes) and Donald Holder (lights) depict a musty old circus that has seen better days. Tharp's acrobatic ensemble of clowns (Lisa Gajda, Neil Haskell, Jason McDole, Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Jonathan Nosan, John Selya and Ron Todorowski) raucously and joyously bounce on trampolines, walk a tightrope, partake in some body contorting, play some double Dutch and, yes, dance quite spectacularly. Tharp often splits focus between solo singers and dancers, forcing the audience to choose one or the other. And though it may be frustrating for the viewer, it's perfectly in tune with the circus tradition of presenting two or three acts simultaneously.
Michael Arden sparkles with boyish charm and sincerity to match his beautiful singing voice. Thom Sesma's commanding presence and gritty, diabolical sex appeal had at least one admirer around me purring. Lisa Brescia doesn't have as much to work with playing "the girl," and Loquasto's one major misstep is her red dress over blue jeans costume, but when given a chance she displays an attractive voice and a healthy belt.
The ninety minute piece is performed without an intermission, but the bar is open before showtime and you can bring drinks to your seat because they're served in souvenir The Times They Are A-Changin' sippy cups. I think that's adorable.
Center: Thom Sesma and company