Jenn Colella and Michael Arden in  The Times They Are A-Changin'
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Jenn Colella and Michael Arden in
The Times They Are A-Changin'
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Director/choreographer Twyla Tharp has met the canon of Bob Dylan music head on, and the result -- The Times They Are A-Changin' -- is a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul. Tharp proved very adept at reinventing the genre of the "jukebox musical" in 2002 when she adapted the songs of Billy Joel into the Tony Award-winning Movin' Out, and I think the reception will be even stronger for this new offering, which features three standout singer/actors as the show's leads and a group of seven athletic and talented dancer/singers.

Tharp sets the action "sometime between awake and asleep," so that the 90-minute show seems to exist in some strange dreamscape. It takes place at Captain Arab's traveling circus -- which hasn't been traveling for a while -- where a classic battle of wills between the generations is slowly fomenting. Arab -- complete with a peg leg like Melville's similarly named Captain Ahab -- and his son Coyote are struggling over the future of the circus. Coyote's first instinct is to run away, but his attraction to the beautiful animal trainer Cleo, who his father is also in lust with, binds him to the circus. Meanwhile the other performers-contortionists, stilt-walkers, tumblers, and jugglers play at games to keep themselves sharp during their hiatus.

That's it for the plot, which at times gets lost when a song really doesn't convey the mood Tharp was hoping to express, or even goes way off kilter when she adds some of the most popular and familiar Dylan tunes to the mix. But those problems don't take away from this being a visually stunning piece of theater. It's difficult to take in all the action at times as Tharp fills the stage with so much colorful locomotion. Her seven dancers --Jason McDole, Jonathan Nosan, Justin Bohon, Albert Guerzon, Sean Stewart, Tamara Levinson, and Marty Lawson -- bounce on trampolines at the front and rear of the stage, skip rope, hoop dive, dance on stilts and do much, much more.

Tharp is aided tremendously in creating her dream motif by Santo Loquasto's scenic and costume design, Donald Holder's brilliantly effective lighting, and Francois Bergeron's sound design. Beams from giant flashlights twirled by the dancers during "Knocking' on Heaven's Door" create an otherworldly feeling. And all the elements combine sublimely in "Masters of War," in which Tharp makes a more impassioned anti-war statement than she did in the whole two hours of Movin' Out.

The three leading players are perfectly matched to their songs and alter egos. As Captain Arab, Thom Sesma has a whiskey-and-cigarette soaked voice akin to Dylan's, which makes his renditions of such songs as "Desolation Row," and "Not Dark Yet" sound near to the original. Jenn Colella delivers on the promise of her Broadway debut in the abysmal Urban Cowboy with a heartbreaking performance as Cleo. Her country twang of a singing voice is perfect for "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." She's also ideal in her duets with Coyote, who gets a star making turn by Michael Arden.

The show's quietest moments are also deeply affecting, such as Sesma's haunting rendition of "Simple Twist of Fate," sung while Arden and Colella do a lover's pas de deux in a spotlighted background, or when Arden, suspended over the stage on a sliver of moon, sings "Mr. Tambourine Man," while Marty Lawson dances in front of a simple drop curtain. Michael Dansicker's breathtaking arrangements are performed by the onstage band of five, led by Henry Aronson on keyboard and featuring the haunting harmonica of John Jackson.

Dylan is indeed the poet of his generation, and Tharp has taken songs from his 40-plus year career and breathed new life and vision into them. And just as those decades have flown by for so many people, The Times They Are A-Changin' goes so swiftly, you are amazed it's over when it seems to have just started.