Twyla Tharp has turned to another popular music luminary—Bob Dylan—for her second Broadway show after the phenomenally successful Movin’ Out. Instead of the journey through three pivotal decades that brought Billy Joel’s songs so brilliantly to theatrical life, the approach Tharp takes in The Times They Are A-Changin’ conjures a dark, tumultuous dreamscape.
The program alerts audiences that The Times, which features two-dozen Dylan songs, is set “sometime between awake and asleep.” It carries audiences through vividly animated scenes during which a power struggle takes place within the world of a seedy traveling circus, suspended somewhere in place and time. It’s more of a circus of the mind, rendered almost surreal by the fantastical feats of the seven-person dance ensemble that carries much of the action. Bouncing off the trampolines embedded within the set, clambering in defiance of gravity, walking on their hands, the cast members translate Dylan’s rich imagery through their bodies.
“She always wanted to tell this archetypal fable of father and son—what we choose to take with us and what we say no to,” explains Michael Arden, one of the three singers who portrays a named character in the show. He plays Coyote, whose hopeful disposition is in contrast—and conflict—with his angry, vengeful father, Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma), who runs the circus. Also figuring in the action is Cleo (Lisa Brescia), a young circus performer also trapped by Ahrab’s power plays.
Tharp “had ideas about which songs she wanted to use, and we put them up on their feet and found a story there—which is an exciting way to work,” Arden explains about early stages of the show. “It was a great departure from other stuff I’d been doing; I was trained at Juilliard as an actor, so I was used to scripts and classical text.”
Arden is very much on the move in this show, even if he’s not participating in the bounding, acrobatic antics of the dancing ensemble. “Twyla actually said to me, ‘Don’t take any dance classes. I like you moving the way you do because that’s how this character moves,’” he says. “So what has been interesting and a definite challenge for me has been trying to give over to listening to my body more—not get so full of questions that you forget your natural instincts.”
Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, a veteran of Movin’ Out, whose role in The Times includes a poignant solo to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” has been involved with the show since it first began to take shape. He and fellow cast member Jason McDole, both of whom were members of Tharp’s most recent dance company, worked with Tharp starting two and a half years ago, developing the movement material before a workshop that led producers to fast-track the project for Broadway.
Neshyba-Hodges explains that each of the dancers, who initially portray a Fellini-esque assemblage of circus folk, portrays a specific character. His own is that of Captain Ahrab’s whipping boy.
“He has a very whimsical, dreamy, loving nature but is never allowed to let it out because of Ahrab’s tyrannical rule,” Neshyba-Hodges explains. “In ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ under the safety and protection of Coyote, with Ahrab nowhere near, he’s allowed to be the most true to himself that he could be.”
The Times has gone through substantial evolution and refinement. Cast changes were made after the San Diego run, with Tharp bringing in several dancers who had worked with her on Movin’ Out. Arden describes the process as “a lot of clarifying, some stripping away of things that weren’t necessary—moments that weren’t as clear as others—and finding a tone, a flow to the show. My character has changed a bit … he was more raging against the machine; now he’s more of a dreamer.”
Audiences may come to The Times They are A-Changin’ with varying degrees of personal histories and associations with Dylan’s songs, so many of which have seeped into our collective consciousness. But they’ll encounter the distinctive world of imagination that Tharp has uncovered within them—one filled with surprising and unexpected possibilities.
Opens Oct. 26. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 212-307-4100; 8, $71.25-$111.25.