Long Time Gone: Words & Music of Bob Dylan, Jan. 18 through Feb. 10 at Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave., New Haven. (203) 389-8885. lyrichallnewhaven.com. $35, $25 seniors.
If the very thought of a Bob Dylan tribute show makes you feel like there’s no direction, makes you feel like going home, makes you break just like a little girl… well, don’t think twice. It’s all right.
Long Time Gone: Words & Music by Bob Dylan may indeed have a performer — the show’s creator, Peter Landecker — portraying the Tarantula-like troubadour himself. But Landecker assures the squeamish that, other than that, “it’s not all like a tribute show.” The Bob Dylan character narrates the piece, and only does a little singing. The bulk of the musical numbers — including several medleys, allowing the show to touch upon over 20 Dylan classics in its two acts — are performed by the New York blues artist Guy Davis and Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter BettySoo. “They’re singing in their own voices, playing their own arrangements. They’re not ‘doing Dylan’ at all,” Landecker says.
“It’s one-third spoken word and two-thirds music,” Landecker explains. The first act covers Dylan’s early career up to his vaunted “protest” period, ending with “Like a Rolling Stone.” Act Two explores “his country phase, his gospel phase and beyond,” Landecker says. Projected images enhance the music, but “it’s not a lot of images of old album covers,” he assures. “You could call it a tribute show in that it’s an effort to portray [Dylan] truthfully and accurately, but I don’t want it to be judged just for that.” His subject, Landecker feels, deserves a more imaginative approach. “This is a person who found the power that was inside him, and became one of the most influential people ever. It’s Bob Dylan talking about himself. But it’s not a travelogue. It’s more poetic. I wanted it to suit Bob Dylan. It gets very personal at times.”
Perhaps the greatest assurance, for those who still have “tribute show” trepidations, is that Landecker steers away from certain sensationalized events in Dylan’s life — his motorcycle accident, his “going electric”— that less respectful writers or producers would surely have overblown. “I just skip over that stuff,” Landecker says. “My interest is in the more personal journey.”
Landecker first devised Long Time Gone over two decades ago when he was a student at UCLA. Shortly afterwards, he actually “ran into Bob Dylan at a gas station! I said, ‘I just portrayed you.’” Landecker, who has since met Dylan a couple of other times, got permission from the artist himself to develop Long Time Gone professionally. It was produced on a grand scale in San Francisco in the late 1980s, with another actor playing Dylan and Bob Weir and The Weather Girls making guest appearances during its six-week run.
Landecker didn’t continue as a performer or theater producer, preferring to build a career in Canada writing and producing TV shows for kids (among them “Kit & Kaboodle,” “Young Robin” and a series of TV movies based on the Madeline books). He returned to Long Time Gone recently and realized how relevant it still was. It helped that “in that 20 years, Bob Dylan has just kept going, becoming more and more important.” The show has naturally been updated. “I didn’t add anything from the latest album,” Landecker says, “but I did put in some recent songs.”
Has reviving Long Time Gone inspired Peter Landecker to develop other live theater projects? “No!,” he laughs. “This is my show.” He’s got TV projects to keep him busy creatively.
From his home in Quebec, Landecker did extensive research into where he might best develop this revised, three-person rendition of Long Time Gone. He settled on the small, ornate Lyric Hall stage in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. “I was searching for a small theater that had some heart and soul, and I discovered Lyric Hall. It’s the perfect venue. It can’t not be intimate.”
New Haven’s also close enough to New York City that potential backers can visit this workshop production and maybe invest in a hoped-for Off Broadway run. For the Lyric Hall, this show marks a new level of engagement for the theater (which owner/manager John Cavaliere recreated from the skeletal remains of an old silent-movie stage in the back of his antique restoration shop on Whalley Avenue just a few years ago). With sixteen performances between January 18 and February 10, Long Time Gone is the longest run which the Lyric has yet booked. The first four performances, Jan. 18-24, are “benefit previews” with proceeds going to local organizations such as Neighborhood Music School (Jan. 18), the Jamie Hulley Arts Fund (Jan. 19), Habitat for Humanity (Jan. 23) and the Lyric Hall itself (opening night, Jan. 24).
Landecker feels he’s got a show that can attract as diverse a crowd as is willing to venture to Westville to see it. He says that with the possible exception of a couple of swear words, it’s a show appropriate for the whole family. He also would like to draw an audience from the African-American community. “Bob Dylan was a great Civil Rights figure. I don’t think he’s gotten appreciated for that the way he should.”
When asked to name his favorite Dylan song, he speaks passionately about “It’s All Right, I’m Only Bleeding,” and how it uses a deep family relationship to encompass universal social and political issues.
How big a Bob Dylan fan is the man who can’t resist the urge to play him? “I’m not a maniac,” Peter Landecker says. “When I first did the show all those years ago, I didn’t want to hear anymore Bob Dylan for a long time. But he crept back.”