The other night, I was in Elaine’s in search of a little solace when an old friend came by and said in wounded disbelief that he’d just been to the worst show he’d ever seen in his life.
“That’s funny,” I replied regretfully, “so have I.”
We’d both just seen Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway. Though it gives me no pleasure to say so, I’ve a slight qualification to make. It’s the worst show I’ve seen that was conceived by a respected artist.
“The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” But I fear that with The Times They Are A-Changin’, we’re about as close as we’re likely to get. If an unknown artist had stumbled so badly creating a new musical, I wouldn’t in fairness review it at all. But there’s an arrogance at work here, a cynicism that gives offense. Ms. Tharp is more than a respected artist: Some hail her as an innovatory genius of modern American dance. She conceived, directed and choreographed The Times They Are A-Changin’—and so she must take the knocks for her mind-boggling fiasco.
Let me say positively at least that I enjoyed Movin’ Out, Ms. Tharp’s dance musical set to the songs of Billy Joel, though its narrative and stage pictures of the Vietnam era were too familiar. That hit show was a cut way above the usual jukebox dross. But I regret to say that her opportunistic new show bewilderingly sinks to the lowest Broadway level, while killing the Bob Dylan songbook along the way.
Ms. Tharp has built the show around what must surely be one of the most tired theatrical clichés of all—a circus as metaphor for Life. As the program describes it, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is a “fable” that takes place “Sometime between awake and asleep.” As if that weren’t foolish enough, symbolically downtrodden circus clowns of all sizes are in revolt against Captain Ahrab, a villainous ringmaster with a cracking bullwhip (played by the lip-smacking Thom Sesma). For sanity’s sake, we’d like to assume that Captain Ahrab is no relation to Melville’s Ahab, or indeed to Ahab the King of Israel. But with Ms. Tharp on this sorry form, it’s too close to call. Captain Ahrab might even be some kind of mad symbol of an Arab, but that doesn’t make sense, either. The sad truth is, nothing makes much sense in the entire 90-minute show.
Captain Ahrab is described in the program, for example, as “a tyrannical leader crippled by greed.” He therefore suffers from a severe limp, like Melville’s peg-legged Ahab—a peculiar choice for the lead in a dance musical. But Tharp’s gimpy Ahrab doesn’t dance. He sings “Desolation Row” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” For reasons I again can’t explain, his leg brace—which has been decorated with counterculture flowers—is removed later and venerated like a religious relic. He still walks with a limp, however.
Now, it’s true that the story of Swan Lake is also ludicrous. But at least Swan Lake isn’t set in a cirque symbolique, as dance critics would say. Ms. Tharp’s design team has created a vaguely sinister grunge circus that exists in permanent semi-darkness. It’s a shadowy eyesore in search of a dreamscape. The set re-creates the kind of old-fashioned traveling circus that hasn’t existed for many years, except in Fellini films and Bob Merrill’s musical Carnival (1961)—the tyrannical hero of which also suffered from a severe limp.
Captain Ahrab has an idealistic son named Coyote, who wants life to change. (Michael Arden as Coyote earnestly sings “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which opens the evening on a note of enforced optimism). Meanwhile, Ahrab mistreats his confused mistress, Cleo (Lisa Brescia), a young waif who has run away to join the circus. Coyote is drawn to Cleo (“How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man”)—and, of course, vice versa (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”).
I take back every word I’ve ever said about Mamma Mia! That is a work of genius! At least it isn’t pretending to be Art. I regret that the principal singers in Ms. Tharp’s show—Mr. Sesma, Ms. Brescia and Mr. Arden—aren’t of the highest order, with their over-amplified metallic voices and virtuous sincerity. Ms. Tharp gives no sign of understanding Mr. Dylan’s iconic songs, and sometimes his intention is even reversed. The more densely surreal lyrics would have been a challenge at the best of the times, but Ms. Tharp doesn’t begin to capture Mr. Dylan’s deeply contradictory world, which reflects the social clamor and turbulence of 20th-century American history.
Ms. Tharp’s simple-minded work only reduces the Dylan songbook to a pathetic notion of a love triangle with clowns. The outcome is so thuddingly literal, it’s as if we were watching early MTV.
She’s shamelessly manipulative: searchlights beaming upwards in the auditorium at the climax of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” evoking the 9/11 symbols of light. She’s righteous and arch: the slowed-up version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” delivered meaningfully, as if by a church choir. She embarrasses: the cute little doggie with floppy ears—symbol of playful, childlike innocence, wouldn’t you know—portrayed by a dancer scampering about the stage on all fours … until it’s belatedly strangled by another dancer, thank goodness. She “borrows” or “pays homage”: the hooded figures in black who appear portentously in a dance of death during “Mr. Tambourine Man”—did Ms. Tharp imagine that no one would notice they’re a steal from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal?
By now those renowned symbolic figures have in any case become a parodiable cliché. But more surprising than anything that’s going on in this bankrupt mess is how little dancing there actually is.
If you go to see The Times They Are A-Changin’ for its dance, you must first find it. We’re offered, instead, lots of jumping up and down manically on trampolines, or someone named God loping about on stilts. We have Cleo playing with a hula hoop (badly) and Cleo and Coyote waltzing (stiffly). At one particularly low point, the stage is filled with stuffed animals for no particular reason. There’s also some tumbling and a graceless male contortionist. It’s unbelievable, but there’s even a scene with a jump rope to help pass the time.
Where’s the dance? Where’s the show? Ms. Tharp’s Achilles heel as one of our leading artists is that she lapses willfully into displays of the merely neurotic. It’s as if there were self-sabotaging times when she inhabits some ill-defined private world of her own furious making. That’s sadly the case here. In her intended tribute to Bob Dylan, in the midst of weary circus metaphors and generalized attitudinizing, of arbitrary, silly symbols and meaningless little melodramas writ large, Twyla Tharp has lost her way.