Bob Dylan and Twyla Tharp: An Econbrowser musical review

Right Wing Bob complains that he can’t find a review of the new Twyla Tharp Bob Dylan musical anywhere on the web. Who is Right Wing Bob, you ask? Well, he seems to be the guy with whose lament you end up if you try googling “Bob Dylan Twyla Tharp.” So, as a service to RWB and the world at large, Econbrowser offers this musical review.

“The Times They Are A-Changin’” is based on the improbable premise that the music of Bob Dylan is quite danceable and should therefore serve as the basis for a stage musical. Since I have memorized the lyrics of more than a hundred Dylan tunes, and since my wife loves dance, we had to see it.

Source: Playbill
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The show consists entirely of Bob Dylan compositions, strung together for 90 minutes (no intermission, by the way), and sung by the dancers. The singer/dancers are accompanied by a small electric band that is perched high above stage left because Tharp wanted the orchestra pit reserved for the trampolines. There is a plot– sort of– that is supposed to tie the compositions together, something to do with a son’s conflicts with his miscreant father who runs a surreal circus– better not to inquire too fastidiously into the details of all that. Basically the segues string together with the same sort of chaotically creative stream of consciousness that characterizes the lyrics of many of Dylan’s songs themselves.

The production follows, faithfully if not chronologically, the many metamorphoses of Dylan’s styles, including pining ballads, folk-protest, country-western, and evangelical. But Tharp’s favorite appears to be psychedelic rock and roll. The basic goal seems to be to convey through dance, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, the turmoil of thoughts, emotions and images embodied in the songs.

And how exactly do you do that? The show begins with a soliloquy of the title song, “The Times They Are A Changin’”, and transitions to “Highway 61 Revisited”, in which God is portrayed by Jonathan Nosan, who demonstrates a remarkable capacity for grace, energy, and rhythm while dancing on stilts. Later we see odd human contortions to communicate the creepy examination table of Dr. Filth on “Desolation Row”, and big gray exercise balls for “Like a Rolling Stone” that are like, well, rolling stones. Much of the production seems more acrobatics than choreography, as if Twyla Tharp meets Bob Dylan meets Cirque du Soleil, but always capturing the heart and beat of the music, even when the artists are simultaneously skipping between 3 sets of swinging ropes.

If the production struggles for a plot, it also seems to yearn for a unifying message. “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”, one of Dylan’s religious pieces, ends abruptly with an invitation to remember the Garden of Eden account of Satan and original sin, which for Tharp leads logically into “Masters of War”, Dylan’s scathing condemnation of those who earn their living making military weapons. In the current sweep of history, the words have a new power and bite, and Tharp follows the tension with “Blowin’ in the Wind”, though this juxtaposition runs into the fundamental enigma of that song, which so eloquently poses the questions, but has no answers, at a point in the production that one was desperately looking for answers. The best she can do to wrap it all up is end with “Forever Young”, a touching quasi-prayer for a good life that may come as close as anything Dylan offered for some kind of resolution of where to go and what to do.

In the end, it’s not about either the “plot” or the “message”, but simply a celebration of the incredible creativity of both Tharp and Dylan, leaving you continually wondering in awe, how did they come up with all this stuff, as the fountain continues unabated for 90 minutes. My wife and I highly recommend it if you have a chance to see it.

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13 thoughts on “Bob Dylan and Twyla Tharp: An Econbrowser musical review

  1. dilbert dogbert

    I liked Mama Mia better. Like Abba better than Bob, but then I don’t know Bob about Bob.

  2. dryfly

    I guess I’ll have to look for it too… especially since I live a few blocks off Highway 61 and ‘revisit’ it regularly. ;)

  3. Anonymous

    i’ve seen it it’s amazing and jj jackson is playing guitar and harmonica worth the ticket price alone!

  4. Anonymous

    Just saw it and I have to say it was absolutely amazing..
    I have to admit I am not a “theatre person” but at 52 years old I’ve seen quite a few plays and musicals. Living in Los Angeles all my life I’ve had the privledge to see 100′s of Rock concerts..Pink Floyd several times, Zepplin, The Who, The Stones, McCartney, Elton, Bowie, The Dead with Dylan, Rod Stewart just to name a few of the big name truly “put on a hell of show” bands in my A/V experience.
    Of all the shows I’ve seen in my life I left the Globe the other night knowing I had just experienced something unique and fresh and in my book easily in the top 10 of shows I’ve seen in my life. I am so glad we “happened upon it”
    As EB states here it’s not a plot or message it’s an experience, though my wife believes there are underlying “hidden messages” in this story. I guess there may very well be since our sub conscious minds play such an important part in our creativity. Twyla ain’t talkin..
    The adaptation of the music by Michael Dansicker both in his instrumentation and vocals brings a new enjoyable approach to Bobby’s works. Dylan as a song writer is a gift to the world. I absolutely love the way he sings some of his songs and then again don’t necessarilly like the way he performs others (like my opinion matters). An example of a Dylan song taken to the next level musically would be “All along the Watchtower” originally a great song then Jimi took it to the next level. Jenn Colella performing “Don’t think twice, it’s all right stopped my heart.. As a musician and playing that song hundreds of times “my style” the way it was done blew me away.
    There are so many great and talented people in this show..
    The lead singing characters are all world class performers. Michal Arden “Coyote” is every bit as good as any “American Idol” a very talented man.
    Thom Sesma as captain Arab commands the stage.
    There are duets and triets (is that a word?) that are just beautiful works.. between the 3 leads.
    Hats off to the band! Great job guys! mmmmmm cool
    harmonica and guitar brother!
    But wait there’s more!
    Yes the music was great…no really great! But it was the meld of music and the visuals of not only the lead performers but of of the amazing cast of dancers and acrobats.
    Cool use of the flashlights on Knocking on heavens door…
    The use of pilate balls and trampolines in the choreography was beyond clever. There is a ton of action going on.. The show goes through the ebb and tides but never missing a beat..non stop..
    pure unadulterated entertainment.
    Bottom line is there is a reason this show is sold out every night..
    If you have a chance to see it.. don’t blow your chance..
    Thanks Twyla for another piece of your heart!

  5. Mary Stolze

    Ever since the early days of just Bob with his guitar and harmonica in the small venues in Denver, I have been a fan. Even remembering the confusing years of Bob playing whole sets with his back to the audience jamming with various back up groups and sometimes having to be led on and off the stage. The later years of him returning to the Midwest now looking like he was enjoying it all again. I couldn’t miss this Twyla Tharp musical set to Dylan music. And it was great! It certainly pleased the people around me who like the songs but not necessarily with him singing them. I did read that Tharp does alot of tweaking and that may be the difference between the the early reviews in the San Diego papers and the performance I attended on February 24th.
    Mary Stolze(the country I come from is called the Midwest).

  6. amy

    Hi there…My husband is a huge Dylan fan…i would love for him to see this awesome performance…i cannot find out when and where it is being shown…would do anything for him to attend….HELP! :) thanks…

  7. Siena

    Dylan’s songs are poems so many of us feel
    as heartruth. I am looking for one I can
    bellydance to…..
    Siena in CA

  8. debra solomon

    I saw this show last night it is the most GOD AWFUL show in Broadway. Ms Tharp misses the feeling of the music by noit a mile but by hundresdes of miles and her randy bunch of acrobats bouncing around on big black balls and teddy bears thrown about the stage make you yearn for the exit.
    Stay at home Rent Sweeney Todd in concert from netflix!

  9. JDH

    That’s an interesting reaction, Debra. One of the things that always intrigued me about Dylan’s music is its ubiquity. To me, the songs sound great when performed in so many different ways and styles. Peter Paul and Mary, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and Johny Cash all had completely different visions of what the music was supposed to sound like, and to me they all sound great. My personal favorite is Odetta. When Dylan performs them himself, his unique vocal approach just hints and plays with all these harmonies that other artists then highlighted. And he performs his own songs in a radically different way on different occasions– I don’t know of any other performer who has the raw creative talent to pull that off.
    I agree with you that the “rolling stones” were a bit over the top. I do think that was Tharp’s intention, though, to try something so silly that it might be fun.

  10. Brian

    This show is really fun. Dylan purists who feel that the message-medium link cannot be transcended will be troubled. I get that. But I think that Dylan would be the first to say that all poetry is up to the listener to be inspired by… not to be prescribed and confined. It’s 40 years later; I personally think we can enjoy this music and watch the creative tapestry of Tharp’s work. When you think of these shows that take a single artist’s book and strings together anything cohesive, I think it’s amazing.

    I went to see it on Thursday night. Then got to TKTS on Friday and went to see it again. And, faced with $60 and repeats of Hairspray, Rent, Grey Gardens, Producers, and “Times,” I saw it again a third time.

    To the critics that are stuck in their purist mentality: get over it. The times, they are a-changing. Do you really want to affirm your joining of the Establishment by whining about how much better things were in the old days?

  11. maggie comes fleetfoot

    Has the world gone mad? Dylan on Broadway? Bob, how could you?
    Positively 4th Street.

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