Sitting in the audience during the opening number at Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ I had one of those moments of disorientation where nothing seems to make sense and you wonder when it was that everyone in New York started taking crazy pills. Bob Dylan endorsed this? That bald guy to my left is enthusiastically clapping? I have to stay for the next hour and a half?
Created and produced solely on the power of celebrity and baby-boomer nostalgia, this musical theater rendition of Bob Dylan’s most famous and influential songs brings nothing to the table in terms of storyline. It’s a vague coming-of-age fable set in a low-budget circus. Even so, it wouldn’t be so bad if the vocals and choreography lived up to, or at least didn’t detract so violently from, the original Dylan songs. Take the death number, for example. A crazy white-haired circus ring leader (who looks like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future) sings ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ while the rest of the supporting cast stands around him in a circle wearing black hooded robes on a dark stage and shines flashlights on his face, which they shake like tambourines to the chorus.
All of the numbers are equally random in their choreography, making chaos the one thread that really ties the whole thing together. There are a lot of contortions and acrobatics, trampoline jumping, some double dutch, tightrope walking, a number of big round exercise balls, and a pretty girl. Trapped in that mess somewhere is the timeless songwriting of a musical genius.