PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Times They Are A-Changin' — Movin' Out and Bobbin' On

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Times They Are A-Changin' — Movin' Out and Bobbin' On
 
The tunes they are a-changin' — well, 25 of them from The Bob Dylan Songbook are now accompanied by a dizzy, dangerous twirl of Twyla Tharp dance, which she conceived, directed, choreographed and placed on the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre Oct. 26.
From Top: Thom Sesma, Lisa Brescia & Michael Arden; Twyla Tharp; Ron Todorowski & Jonathan Nosan; Bebe Neuwirth; Lisa Gajda & John Selya; Kathleen Turner & Jimmy Nederlander, Jr.; Celia Weston & Sylvia Miles; Jerry Mitchell; James & Charlene Nederlander
From Top: Thom Sesma, Lisa Brescia & Michael Arden; Twyla Tharp; Ron Todorowski & Jonathan Nosan; Bebe Neuwirth; Lisa Gajda & John Selya; Kathleen Turner & Jimmy Nederlander, Jr.; Celia Weston & Sylvia Miles; Jerry Mitchell; James & Charlene Nederlander Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Under the epochal handle of The Times They Are A-Changin', Tharp has stitched together famous Dylan ditties into a dark little doily of her own design — a "fable," she calls it in the program notes, involving a lot of Oedipal head-butting between father and son against a backdrop of a rundown, rag-tag circus (devised by — The Junkman Cometh —Santo Loquasto, who has been putting out great junkyards since American Buffalo in 1977).

Tharp's previous attempt at saga-spinning with existing lyrics — reading Vietnam into the songs of Billy Joel, Movin' Out — enjoyed a good three years on Broadway, plus road company tours. So now she has administered her own the ink-blot test on Dylan and come up with, basically, a love triangle — Captain Ahrab, the circus owner, and his first-and-only born, Coyote, were at each other's throats even before a woman, Cleo, entered the picture. These C's are choppy for 90 minutes, then the audience is off to Roseland to dance it off.

Contrary to tradition, I-Did-It-My-Way Twyla is among the first to arrive, even before the thirsty press. The place has been done over as a carnival sideshow replete with shoeshine parlor, frog-jumping contests — a veritable garden of very earthly delights. And, high above it all, three beauties in an aerial hammock act (a la Nines Jane Krakowski).

In so many words and in so many ways, Tharp was asked What's-It-All-About-Twyla?

She said she came up with the plot "by thinking about the lyrics, by thinking about what I felt would communicate something that would mean something to people now." She didn't have a favorite moment ("All the moments are like your children."), and she Wasn't a particular Dylan fan growing up ("At that time, you must remember, I was working in the basement of a church in silence." Evidently, and apparently, she got out.) Opening night marked an anniversary for Michael Dansicker — his second full year with the show. "Two solid years," he reiterates, with just a telltale touch of "Two Years Before the Mast" in his voice. "You had hair then," I tease him. He nods his chrome-dome. "I did. Blond. Long blond curls." He is one of the few to stay with the show from start to finish.

Dansicker, who arranged, adapted and supervised the music, said Michael Arden is about all that's left of the show's San Diego starting team. Lisa Brescia just took over the lead girl part a week and a half ago. Thom Sesma was the cover in San Diego and stepped into the captain's boots with the dismissal of the original actor (Paul Kandel, a Tony nominee for The Who's Tommy and the lead in Dansicker's musical 20 Fingers, 20 Toes).

And Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, who danced the daylights out of "Tambourine Man” on opening night, was injured in San Diego and missed the entire run out there.

Arden came perilously close to missing the Broadway opening, felled by the flu and indeed missing the two preceding critics performances. His performance on opening night was full-out and heroic, knocking the 17 Dylan songs assigned to him out of the ballpark.

"That's what 24 hours of sleep and a lot of tea and honey will do for you — and adrenaline, definitely," he told the press about his miraculous recovery. "It's always sad to take a show off because you want to be there with your co-workers, but I definitely needed to get a little better so I could be here tonight for this occasion. I wish I could have been there, but I'm just grateful that the company was so understanding."

Arden made his Broadway debut as Tom Sawyer in the Roundabout-Deaf West revival of Big River, but "this is the first role I've originated on Broadway so I'm just thrilled it's this."

The stories are true that Tharp is a tough taskmistress — but that's a good thing in his book. "She definitely demands the best of us, but she instills in us the desire for us to want to do our best, and, for that, I am forever grateful to her.

"I love that it's new and that it's challenging not only for us but for our audiences. We're doing something that no one else is doing. We're giving the audience a chance to think for themselves, and, by doing that, we're creating something that is not circus, that is not dance, that is not theatre, that is something that has never existed before. There is nothing better for an artist to do — to get a chance to create something new and different."

As usual the most eye-grabbing and compelling of the dancers, John Selya entered the project on one of the last wave of replacements and quickly came up to speed. He's the Donna McKechnie of male dancers — too good to go back to the chorus — and he effortlessly puts forth a full character (he was Tony-nominated for Best Actor for Movin' Out). "I try to act when I dance," he admitted. "I don’t know if I do that, but that's my goal. Where I came from before — American Ballet Theatre — it was all about how the dance is just a springboard to play a character. The dance wasn't the end-all. It was only meant to make a character to portray part of a plot. I have a great time with this show, absolutely. Anytime I can perform is a great time for me."

Quite definitely, the actor in Sesma emerged when he was asked what he made of the dastardly Captain Ahrab he played. He answered in a sympathetic mode: "I think he's really misunderstood. He's described as a villain, but I think he's a deeply complex character living in a world of dreams." I ask you, could Olivier have said it better?

Despite her brief time in the role, Brescia betrayed a serious understanding of her role: "Cleo is from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, been beat up but is definitely a survivor. She has taken refuge in this crazy environment of a traveling circus full of dysfunctional folks. She's involved in a somewhat abusive relationship with a guy who runs the circus, and, through the course of the evening, she falls in love with his son. So there's a bit of a love triangle there, but not a lot of angst about it. She's just sorta up for anything."

This is her fourth Broadway show, the first time she has originated a lead role. Short-notice is a specialty with Brescia: she stepped in and replaced Maria Friedman, when she had to leave The Woman in White because of her breast cancer. "It was an extraordinary experience. I think I was able to enjoy it only because Maria's prognosis was excellent. I don't think I would have had much fun if I thought she was struggling."

Songwriter and director Craig Carnelia beamed proudly from the sidelines while Brescia was being interviewed. "We're not technically engaged," he explained, "but I am her life partner forever and forever. You can say that. Those are our plans."

Carnelia's professional plans? "I'm having a new songbook published in about a month, which I'm very excited about, and I'm having a show of mine that I’m very proud of called The Good War [i.e., World War II] that's about to be leased for production all around the country. It's another show that I did for Studs Terkel. This new company called Theatrical Rights Worldwide just picked it up and is about to lease it around the country. It's vintage songs, but very much tinkered with and rearranged. It's probably my favorite thing that I’ve been part of. I wrote it with David Bell who's been a frequent collaborator of mine, actually."

Kathleen Turner led the star parade, limping a bit from foot surgery, followed by two-time Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth, Tony Roberts, designer Arnold Scassi, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (whose Dark Matters is unveiled Nov. 20 at Rattlestick) and Shannon DeVine (a.k.a. Mrs. U.S.A.). Jackie Mason slipped his tickets to his attorney, Raoul Felder, who struck star poses for the assembled photographers.

Three actors from Todd Field's acclaimed and darkly satiric new film, "Little Children," had an impromptu reunion at the play and party — Phyllis Somerville and Noah Emmerich, who collide tragically over her pedophile son, and Gregg Edelman, who plays Kate Winslet's kinky hubby. Somerville, a seasoned Off-Broadway staple, has one more episode of "Kidnapped" to go and is set to do a reading for the LAByrinth Company, her stage homebase. Emmerich, who was Mitch to Patricia Clarkson's Blanche in the Kennedy Center revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, continues to have his sign out for New York theatre work. "I just finished 'Pride and Glory,' a cop movie with Edward Norton, Colin Farrell and Jon Voight — I think, a really special film, actually," he said. "I don't know what's next for me. I'd love to get back on the stage."

Edelman, married to Broadway's current Mamma Mia! (Carolee Carmello), was the tag-along date of Joe Masteroff, the Tony-winning author of Cabaret, which Edelman did in revival. And Celia Weston and Sylvia Miles were doing their girls'-night-out. Redheaded restaurateur Angus MacIndoe came to the theatre with New York Post theatre needle Michael Riedel, the least he could do, considering how many times the floor of Angus MacIndoe's has been mopped up with Riedel (well, once, anyway). Earlier this month, at a benefit for Abingdon Theatre Company, Riedel participated in a reading of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's classic "All About Eve," playing the acerbic critic and "venomous fish-wife," Addison DeWitt. Precious little rehearsal time was required, reportedly.

Charles Busch, the Margo Channing of that event, was full of news —up to a point — about Our Leading Lady, his play about the Laura Keane., who was starring in Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre the famous fateful night Abraham Lincoln was in the audience: "We've found our leading lady — but I can't tell you who it is yet." All I could get out of him was initials — or, rather, non-initials. "It's not C.B. I'm not in it at all — me the authoress, in my sensible shoes and fox piece and broach. I'm too dignified for that." Lynne Meadow, artistic director for Manhattan Theatre Club, will direct the piece herself, as she did Busch's supersuccessful The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. "It's our reunion," said Busch, "although we started working on it not that long after we started Allergist's Wife — but it's taken so long to get going. We were supposed to do it last year, and it was announced, and I didn't think the play was ready so I pulled it and did a complete rewrite on it. And I think it's so much better now. I'm really glad we didn't do it." Our Leading Lady begins previewing Feb. 22, 2007, for a March 15 world-premiere at City Center Stage II.

Nancy Opel, who has the title role in Abingdon’s new-hit-in-town, My Deah (John Epperson's Dixie edition of Euripides' Medea), arrived at the party, still beaming from the reviews and the news that her show has been extended extra innings til Nov. 26.

Every director-choreographer hyphenate on Broadway or on their circuitous way here seemed to turn out and embrace the gospel according to Tharp — Jeff Calhoun (due Nov. 2 with Grey Gardens at the Walter Kerr), Jerry Mitchell(due April 29, 2007, with Legally Blonde at the Palace), Rob Ashford (elated that Curtains may lift at the now-empty-in-'07 Al Hirschfeld) — and, lording over 'em all, all "5-foot-18-inches" of him, Tommy Tune, who finished his Doctor Dolittle tour in August in Chicago with a glowing notice from Chris Jones that has left a lovely afterglow. But all that is over now, save for the paintings.

"Did you know about my painting?" Tune said, slowly opening a Pandora's box. "I did a series of 18 paintings called 'The Dr. Dolittle Family,' then I turned them into lithographs and sold them in the lobbies of all the theatres that we played." He leaned forward and, entre nous, asided, "I made more money with my art than I did with my performing."

Calhoun, who got a long leg up in the business when Tune tapped him for the '94 revival of Grease, saif he'll start rehearsals next month for the first stage adaptation of The Disney Channel's TV movie, "High School Musical." When that's launched in Atlanta Jan. 13-21, he heads for L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum to resume work on Sleeping Beauty, which has a score by GrooveLily and a book by Spelling Bee Tony winner Rachel Sheinkin.

I sat a few rows in front of the long-stemmed Tune at the theatre and volunteered to scrunch down if he couldn't see. He laughed. "When I start down the theatre aisle," he replied, "everybody in the audience starts praying, 'Please, God, don't let him sit in front of me.' Then I sit down, and they’re happy because I’m just tall in the legs." It's true. He folds up like deckchairs. "It's all in the legs." He should have that printed up on business cards.

The cast of <i>The Times They Are A-Changin'</i> take its opening night bows.
The cast of The Times They Are A-Changin' take its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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