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FROM THIS EPISODE

How Does It Feel?

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

History tells us that when Bob Dylan's famous song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" came out in 1964, the Baby Boomers hearing it on the radio or considered it to be an optimistic anthem. Changing &quotThe; Times" would bring about peace, equality and a better world for all--that was the thought at least.

Now, midway through the second Baby Boomer administration, it is very clear that the times have changed in forty years. But it's less certain that the many benefits of that time outweigh the more unpleasant repercussions of the 1960's.

This may seem more like an introduction to a position paper, rather than a theater review; but thoughts like these were unavoidable when confronted with the loud, crass, and thoroughly depressing stage show titled The Times They Are A-Changin'.

On paper, the notion of making a Broadway spectacle of Bob Dylan's music is questionable; on stage, it's a debacle of Woodstockian proportions. If a ticket to that famed festival is the highest cultural trophy a Boomer can claim; then paying to see The Times They Are A-Changin' is the equivalent of burning those same Woodstock credentials. Sad to say, this out-of-town run in San Diego is completely sold out.

This travesty is set to open on Broadway later this year, and if The Times They Are A-Changin' succeeds then it will serve as another cultural marker that the Baby Boomer generation has exchanged its peace symbol for the dollar sign.

Conceived by Twyla Tharp and condoned by Bob Dylan, this production suggests that these artists' creative energy has been spent solely on marketing. Tharp showed this to some degree on her last spectacle, Movin' Out, which had her acrobatic dancers groovin' to a Billy Joel cover band.

Sure, it was commercial; but at least there was some choreography. In The Times They Are A-Changin', there is very little modern dance; just lots of fussy movement more reminiscent of Cats or a Vegas revue rather than Deuce Coupe--Tharp's 1973 Joffrey piece that pioneered the melding of modern dance and pop music.

But more importantly, Dylan's music has a cherished status, both historically and artistically, which makes The Times so much reprehensible than Movin' Out. This awfulness has been reported by many, so rather than simply join in the pile up and briefly describe all of its many horrors--though performers encouraging the audience to clap along to the beat, power chords and ABBA-esque key changes, and a lame homage to the cue cards from "Subterranean Homesick Blues," must be mentioned--I'd like to simply describe the staging of one song, "Like a Rolling Stone."

Early in the song, one notices that despite lyrics about hard times and disgrace, the singer is strutting cockily about the stage as if he were Rod Stewart or an American Idol contestant. Soon three dancers come out and start accompanying the singer--who by the way has a headset mic...apparently no one thought that acoustic might be the way to go on this one. As awkward as it is to hear background singers belting &quotHow; does it feel...Oooh yeah" the real nightmare is when they croon &quotLike; a rolling stone" and black yoga balls start rolling out on stage. Get it: rolling stones? Instead of dance choreography, Tharp now gives us a literal interpretation of the individual words for the lyrically challenged.

Hucksterism of this sort could also be faintly detected during the first half of the Alvin Ailey troupe's performance last night. The first two pieces--not choreographed by the company's founder--were light on artistic rigor and also set to popular music; but luckily the second half of the program gave the gifted dancers something beautiful and interesting to do. A brief work by Hans van Manen, Solo was a small joy; but it was Ailey's masterpiece, Revelations, on hand once again as the spiritual, jubilant finale, that served as a reminder that some of the things done in the 1960's have not been completely corrupted...yet.

Alvin Ailey, American Dance Theatre can be seen tonight through Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Times They Are A-Changin runs through March 19 at the Old Globe.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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