`The Times They Are' Fellini-esque, preachy

Theater review

October 29, 2006|By Linda Winer | Linda Winer,Newsday

NEW YORK -- In The Times They Are A-Changin', Twyla Tharp's fascinating but ultimately derailed circus musical with Bob Dylan songs, dancers literally jump through hoops.

They also tumble above the stage on trampolines, cavort on stilts, jump rope so fast we lose sight of the ropes and tie their limbs into shapes that mere mortals should not imagine.

For all the gorgeous and diabolical virtuosity, however, this 90-minute experiment, which opened last week on Broadway, gets lost in its own messy - all right, preachy - allegorical ambitions.

This dark, Fellini-esque fable awkwardly combines three carny characters who mostly sing Dylan's greatest hits well and seven clowns who mostly dance fantastically well.

Until about midway through, Tharp is masterly at finding the thread for her dreamscape in Dylan's iconic songs.

Without Dylan's growl, his music - adapted and arranged by Maryland native Michael Dansicker and played by a strong rock combo - shows itself to be richly melodic, varied and propulsively danceable.

We first meet Coyote, played with clear-voiced, clear-eyed sweetness by Michael Arden, as he sneaks out from behind a hanging tarp in Santo Loquasto's nightmare of an old traveling circus to sing the title song, "What you can't understand ... your sons and your daughters are beyond your command."

Specifically, he's warning his sadistic father, the ringmaster Ahab. Thom Sesma is pure evil as the villain with a yellow smile, a cracking bullwhip, and yet, the capacity to feel alone with his snarl.

The two are caught in a love triangle with Cleo, the crisp and forthright Lisa Brescia.

The dancers are extraordinary, but things start going downhill around "Blowin' in the Wind," sung slowly with bathetic choir harmonies much like a kind of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."

Tharp, a task-oriented perfectionist, has dreamed up extreme circus tricks, then transforms them from tricks to art. Even when she loses her way - which she definitely does - her failures are more interesting than most of theme-park Broadway.

Linda Winer writes for Newsday.

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