Those who’ve followed Twyla Tharp’s career from the get-go honor not only her brilliance but the fact that she constantly challenges herself. As Marcia B. Siegel (author of the penetrating Tharp biography, Howling Near Heaven) noted in her Boston Phoenix review of The Times They Are A Changin’, the Broadway musical conceived, directed, and choreographed by Tharp, “. . .she seeks out gambits that would terrify any reasonable person.” Sometimes, however, hubris mixes with daring to lead this major choreographer astray. You want to stand under the high wire she’s attempting to traverse and yell up to her, “Twyla! Remember you can’t fly!”
Many reviews of the show, in which Bob Dylan’s lyrics are grafted onto an elementary plot of Tharp’s devising, have been vitriolic—partly colored, I suspect, by disappointment. And dance lovers may harbor a secret wish, “Why couldn’t she have stuck with maintaining a company and making marvelous choreography for marvelous dancers?” Twyla being Twyla, hand wringing is useless.
Storytelling has never been her forte. Those who remember dances like Give and Take, When We Were Very Young, The Catherine Wheel, and Mr. Worldly Wise were excited when she got it wonderfully right in the musical Movin’ Out. A careful selection of Billy Joel’s songs, delivered by an onstage piano man, provided her with characters, elements of a plot, and a powerful ambience (the Vietnam War) to explore through dance. Bob Dylan’s song lyrics have a more wide-open socio-political resonance, but for this musical, Tharp wanted to try a new approach—one that of necessity pinned the songs to her scenario, since they’re sung by her three principal characters: Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma), the vicious, snarling manager of a shabby circus; Coyote (Michael Arden); his kind-hearted, restless son; and the hard-used Cleo (Lisa Brescia)—sleeping with Ahrab, desired by Coyote—whose dog act is part of the tent show.
Tharp dredged the circus theme from several Dylan songs (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”) and populated her semi-Oedipal fable with a Greek chorus of clowns and acrobats, who are largely mute (perhaps because none of the terrific dancers can handle solo singing?) There’s almost no spoken text, and because Tharp employs Dylan’s music to express (and reiterate) the feelings of the three characters, the songs seem at times to be over-embellishing a tale that, despite its mythic significance, is fairly thin.
A program note announces that the fable “exists in a dreamscape.” The dream theme legitimizes useful and beguiling transformations, but I think it’s a cop-out on Tharp’s part. It relieves her of trying to develop narrative links, and because she avoids the usual tropes that telegraph, “this is a dream, folks,” it promotes confusion. If this is a dream, whose dream is it?
The fragmented hallucination approach prevents us from being sure when we’re seeing an actual circus act, even an incomplete one. The ragged army of clowns delivers the powerful “Masters of War” as a slave rebellion of sorts, but, danced in unison and aimed at the audience, it’s more of a “number” than the fragmentary bursts of tricks, as is the jump-rope act that morphs into a chain gang, cat’s cradles, and finally a prize-fight ring in which Ahrab is vanquished.
That said, I disagree with those who feel that Tharp’s use of the songs fatally demeans or diminishes Dylan’s genius (it’s not insignificant that Dylan himself collaborated with Michael Dansicker to orchestrate the songs played by a small band that’s crammed onto a high platform stage right). Sesma, Arden, and Brescia deliver the lyrics powerfully and movingly, and only some of the tunes seem shoe-horned in or, like “Masters of War,” shrunken in terms of their larger implications. Occasionally, alas, Tharp illustrates the Dylan’s texts too literally. “Desolation Row” mentions Cinderella; is that why clown Lisa Gajda starts sweeping up? And the ambiguously sordid Dr. Filth of the same song becomes a sadistic physician who manipulates contortionist Jonathan Nosan into impossibly painful-looking positions.
Many of Tharp’s directorial choices, however, are shrewd. Coyote sings “Lay Lady Lay” to Cleo not as a horny prelude to expected sex, but as a wish he’s hesitant to articulate; the two circle each other, wary as well as flirtatious, and their eventual coming together is surprisingly, subtly, sensual. One very bright idea was to structure “Please Mrs. Henry” as a jug-band act performed by Coyote, Cleo, and the clowns. Clustered downstage left, they provide the clearest and lustiest sense of these entertainers as a family, bonded through mistreatment, dead-end touring, and aimless drugging.
The clown chorus performs almost constantly, whether in the background, centerstage, or exploding through. They’re the lifeblood of this sad little circus, rendered by Santo Loquasto as fantastically, almost baroquely shabby. Nosan executes the most obvious tricks (the unicycle, the stilts, the tightrope), but the bulk of the dancing and much of the acrobatic stuff is heroically performed by Neil Haskell, Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Jason McDole, John Selya, and Ron Todorowski. When Todorowski of the magnificent long legs vaults elegantly into the air on one of the two semi-concealed trampolines, your heart leaps absurdly. Small, nimble Neshyba-Hodges eloquently plays the timid, emotionally naked member of the troupe, who’s moved to tears when Coyote and Cleo reveal their love. McDole is wonderful doubling as Cleo’s dog, cocking his fake ears, twitching with excitement when she’s around, and putting his head between his paws when she deserts him for Coyote. Selya, not lean and limber enough for the flips, doesn’t get enough opportunities to do the kind of powerful, explosive dancing he excels at, but he’s vibrantly in character every moment he’s onstage.
There’s no doubt that the show, despite its flaws, excites and moves audiences. The night I attended, most of those seated in the orchestra gave the performers a standing ovation. Go figure.