Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: The dancing in "Movin' Out" is spectacular. Twyla Tharp's choreography to music by Billy Joel is extraordinarily demanding, but her young dancers perform it with astonishing commitment and energy. These dancers have classical training, and they can do the traditional movements with an intensity that makes what goes on at our "serious" local companies seem exceedingly tepid. But sometimes, within a phrase or two, they must go from the lyrical classical style into the angular, libidinal, athletic movements for which Tharp is known. I would imagine that however much one has rehearsed, these abrupt transitions must have an effect on the body comparable to whiplash, but these dancers perform them as if they were the most natural thing in the world. In a "normal" musical, the dancers would have a chance to take it easy, while the book scenes or the purely vocal moments took place. But in "Movin' Out," there is no book and there is only one singer (Michael Cavanaugh), and he is on a platform behind the dancers. They are "on" virtually the whole evening. Tharp has strung the dances together in a plot about a group of lifelong friends who start out in the carefree world of the early '60s, ... la "American Graffiti."
The three young men - Eddie, Tony and James - go to Vietnam. James comes back in a body bag. (An especially moving moment is the simple ritual act of folding the flag that has covered his coffin to give to his widow.) The others return shattered. Their lives spin into disarray. Toward the end, though, Tony is reunited with his girlfriend, and the evening ends in a muted version of the warm feelings with which it began. The plot ultimately doesn't matter much. And some of its turns, like a scene in an S&M bar, seem silly. Joel's words don't necessarily deepen our sense of the human story behind the steps. Tharp's choreography is not greatly varied, but the stage fairly explodes with energy; her dancers seem incapable of doing anything halfway. The men - John Selya, Keith Roberts and Benjamin G. Bowman - have the most Herculean assignments, which they perform with an imposing mix of heroic vitality and simple grace. But the women -Elizabeth Parkinson and Ashley Tuttle - have the same inherent power, even when they are being tossed about, as they sometimes are, quite roughly. Santo Loquasto's sets are suitably gritty. Donald Holder's lighting is intensely dramatic. The onstage band is terrific, especially sax player John Scarpulla. Whether or not "Movin' Out" really depicts the emotional mood of the last four decades, the dancing - and the dancers - are absolutely thrilling.
They can call the Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel "Movin' Out" a musical until they're blue in the face.
But if it looks like a ballet, sounds like a ballet, feels like a ballet and dances like a ballet - it is a ballet, the first full-evening Broadway ballet, at least since Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" a few years back got Broadway's feet wet.
If a story is too silly to speak, then sing it; and if it's too silly to sing, then dance it. And the story of "Movin' Out," which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, while not exactly silly, is familiar to the point of seeming simplistic.
. Draft. Vietnam. Death. Alienation. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Despite the accent on things past, Tharp's not dancing Proust here. But the simplicity of the theme lends itself to the narrative thrust of those incredibly evocative and powerful Joel songs. It is story by suggestion, emotion by remembrance.
Unlike the milquetoast stuff offered in Susan Stroman's "Contact," the dancing and choreography are the real thing. Most of the troupe are ballet-trained, some as principal dancers with major companies, and all of them dance at high-octane level.
The beginning is slow going, but once we get to Vietnam and the second act, Tharp and her dancers get really hot.
Essential to Tharp's concept is Billy Joel's music. We've seen how skillfully existing songs can be adapted to a sung-through story line in "Mamma Mia!" and there's a musical, poetic and dramatic weight to Joel that emerges especially well in "Movin' Out."
Tharp's choreography is less ornate than her 30-year-old "Deuce Coupe," created to music by the Beach Boys, but it has a real Broadway sweep, drive and pizazz. At its worst it's effective, at its best it's terrific.
No praise can be too high for the dancing: The principals are all from Tharp's own company and they dance her choreography as if it were spontaneous and dazzling improvisation.
Elizabeth Parkinson, Keith Roberts, Ashley Tuttle and Benjamin G. Bowman are the two couples, with John Selya as the odd-man-out joker in the pack. Parkinson and Roberts (especially in a kind of longing "duet," when separated by oceans, they dance with two seductive surrogates) are especially fine.
But it is Selya's show -- his characterization as much as his no-holds-barred dancing is absolutely riveting. He's a star.
Wednesday and Saturday matinees, the show has a second cast. This, with Holly Cruikshank, David Gomez and Meg Paul, is also extremely good, so don't feel cheated if you catch it.
When a young man kicks up his heels in the new Broadway show ''Movin' Out,'' which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, the feeling isn't just fancy-free. True, Eddie, a strapping boy in his salad days, has every reason to be frisky. He is newly split from his fiancée, and there are plenty of delicious women just waiting to step out with him.
But when he jumps into the air, showing off (the ex happens to be nearby), his heels skew lopsidedly, as if some inner kink of uncertainty were warping his movements. The song he's strutting to is one of those pop tunes by Billy Joel that sound merely catchy at first, and then sad when you listen harder. You look at the leaping lad again and wonder a bit nervously if he might lose his balance.
This haunting little vignette, performed by the dazzling athletic dancer John Selya, is just a blip in the continuous flow that is ''Movin' Out,'' the choreographer Twyla Tharp's shimmering portrait of an American generation set to Mr. Joel's music. But the scene sums up the dynamic that keeps you engaged through what, baldly described, sounds like a snoozy series of clichés -- the kinds of things regularly sung about, as a matter of fact, in Top 40 pop ballads of the 1970's.
Yet Ms. Tharp and her vivid team of dancers unearth the reasons certain clichés keep resonating and, more important, make them gleam as if they had just been minted.
In chronicling the stories of five blue-collar friends from their glory days in high school through the Vietnam War and its long hangover, ''Movin' Out'' vibrates with a riveting uneasiness. The show translates the subliminal anxiety you always feel watching dancers onstage -- will they be able to stay in sync? will they slip? will they tumble? -- into a study of characters who cannot find equilibrium. They are adolescents jolted out of their expected roles in life before they have had a chance to form their identities.
Everyone in ''Movin' Out'' ultimately does fall down, literally or otherwise. Of course, under the supervision of Ms. Tharp, who created such milestones in modern dance as ''Deuce Coupe,'' they do so with an aching grace.
Even at a time when the Broadway musical keeps stretching into new categories to find new audiences, ''Movin' Out'' fits no pigeonhole. Its closest parallel from recent memory is ''Contact,'' Susan Stroman's effervescent, self-described ''dance play.'' And in using the work of a pop composer like Mr. Joel, ''Movin' Out'' brings to mind the jukebox musical smashes ''Mamma Mia!'' (with the songs of Abba) and ''We Will Rock You'' (Queen).
Yet Ms. Tharp's production has little of the old-style showbiz wit and flourish that Ms. Stroman brought to her delightful trio of danced playlets. Nor does ''Movin' Out'' trade as obviously as ''Mamma Mia!'' does on what might be called the karaoke quotient: the pleasure in listening to familiar feel-good music that makes you want to sing along.
''Movin' Out,'' for the record, has only one principal vocalist: the remarkably accomplished pianist and Billy Joel-soundalike Michael Cavanaugh, who performs on a platform above the dancers with an excellent 10-piece band. There's a self-contained polish about his singing that does not encourage theatergoers to join in. Up to the show's finale, you're unlikely to feel any overwhelming urge to tap your feet or shimmy your shoulders.
This is because Ms. Tharp has created numbers that, at their best, internalize the score. Each principal performer seems to have his or her own special dialogue with the songs; the dances become shaded personality sketches, expressing individual reactions to mass-marketed music.
It helps that the characters in the show, which is set in Mr. Joel's native Long Island, are just the sort of people who would grow up listening to and identifying with Billy Joel songs. They are less rebellious, less hip precursors to the New Jersey kids who would latch on to Bruce Springsteen.
Ms. Tharp honors the hopeful squareness of her characters' youths and the self-destructive, masochistic streak that runs through Mr. Joel's ballads of disappointment in adulthood. Throughout, she makes wonderfully elegant use of their uncool klutziness. You can imagine yourself becoming these characters in a way that the idealized sophistication of Astaire and Rogers, say, does not allow.
The show begins with a prologue, set to ''It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me,'' in which the characters introduce themselves with the sort of exuberant, rough-edged poses common to teenagers, guys flexing their muscles and girls wriggling their hips. The dominant feeling is of people trying on attitudes that don't fit.
There are five fully defined characters: Eddie (Mr. Selya) and Brenda (Elizabeth Parkinson), the king and queen of the prom, who break up soon after the show begins (to the strains of ''Scenes From an Italian Restaurant''); James (Benjamin G. Bowman) and Judy (Ashley Tuttle), whose love seems more durable; and Tony (Keith Roberts), part of a tight trio of friends with Eddie and James.
What follows has been examined to the point of weariness in films like ''The Deer Hunter'' and ''Coming Home'' and novels like ''Machine Dreams.'' The three men go to Vietnam as soldiers. Only two return, and all four survivors -- the men and women -- bear psychic wounds that will not stop festering.
That is pretty much it, folks, and yes, you've heard it before. But with a wide-ranging physical vocabulary that quotes everything from ''Swan Lake'' to Michael Jackson's moonwalk, Ms. Tharp uses this basic story in the way choreographers of storybook ballets used fairy tales like ''Sleeping Beauty.'' The dancers' movements, especially those of the men, keep uncovering deeper emotional levels that are anything but simple.
Not everything works with equal effectiveness in ''Movin' Out,'' which Ms. Tharp has completely restructured since its initial, poorly received tryout in Chicago. An all-American jalopy (a Mustang convertible, if you please), used in the early scenes, hulks leadenly on the stage, symbolic dead weight.
Ms. Tharp's staging of ''Uptown Girl,'' led by the lissome Ms. Parkinson, feels like a weary reworking of Mr. Joel's video for the same song. On the other hand, a ballet of mourning, performed by Ms. Tuttle and three male dancers, is a devastating study in frenzied grief, with faint shades of Martha Grahamesque tragedy.
Overall, ''Movin' Out'' is more compelling in shadow than in sunshine, though Donald Holder's superb lighting evokes both eloquently. (The simple, poetically stark set is by Santo Loquasto.) The conventional pas de deux of courtship have nothing on the harsh, hostile dance of recrimination in which Mr. Roberts and Ms. Parkinson seem literally to be tearing each other apart.
The Vietnam sequences, especially one rendered as a phantasmagorical flashback, are both harrowing and lyrical. Even more impressive are the numbers that plumb the lowest depths of Mr. Joel's songs about self-laceration and descents into substance abuse (''Big Shot,'' ''Captain Jack''), in which period styles from disco to break dancing are executed with skilled sloppiness. And Suzy Benzinger's costumes slyly reflect changing times, with a jolting, brilliant nod to punk rock in a war widow's costume.
Ms. Tharp makes hedonism seem aromatically joyless, and I kept expecting my clothes to reek of smoky, sweaty bars afterward. Mr. Selya is extraordinary in these sequences, as Eddie slides further into drug-induced nightmares, in which he often seems to be floating and crashing in one moment.
I wasn't really convinced by the bright, upbeat scenes of salvation that end the show, which suggest that the answer to depression and suicidal tendencies is jogging. But Ms. Tharp stages her dances of reconciliation and redemption with such infectious New Age-flavored glee that you can feel the audience members loosening up gratefully.
Only when the amazing Mr. Cavanaugh finally gets his deserved moment in the spotlight with the encore, ''New York State of Mind,'' do the theatergoers start wriggling happily like the crowds at ''Mamma Mia!'' After all those images of pain, there is a catharsis in being allowed to feel that Mr. Joel's music is still -- if not only -- rock 'n' roll.
For years, younger musical theater composers have lifted ideas from rock 'n' roll. Isn't it time that more pop songwriters got in on the action?
Billy Joel seems like a particularly deserving candidate, since he's in a relatively small group of rock stars who appreciate what show tunes sounded like before the 1960s. You could even argue that his neatly crafted, melody-driven songs owe a greater debt to Tin Pan Alley than, say, the Rolling Stones.
But unlike touring partner Elton John, Joel hasn't written an original musical — not yet, anyway.
New musical Movin' Out, which opened Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, was conceived by choreographer Twyla Tharp, using many of Joel's already instantly recognizable hits.
However disparate their bodies of work, Tharp and Joel share one quality that makes Movin' Out logical: a proud, willful populism. For all her progressive cachet, Tharp has always been drawn to music, movement and concepts that appeal directly to the dreams and frustrations of everyday people. Lifting such folks from Joel's lyrics, she has constructed a plot that examines the emotional and cultural impact of Vietnam on a generation.
Tharp eschews dialogue, relaying all action and emotion through dance. But singer Michael Cavanaugh helps connect the dots by performing songs from a platform above the stage, backed by a rock band that also samples Joel's instrumental music.
The results can border on sensory overload. In one scene, principal dancers — among them the spectacularly athletic John Selya and Keith Roberts — interact as others masquerade as soldiers and cheerleaders, and the effect is more dizzying than dazzling.
Tharp also can tap too heavily into the sentimental and bombastic aspects of Joel's writing. Her hyperactive staging of We Didn't Start the Fire and a subsequent post-Vietnam nightmare sequence could have benefited from more restraint. But there are glimmers of loveliness in Just the Way You Are and an exuberant medley of River of Dreams and Keeping the Faith that may surprise even Joel's most ardent fans.
And hey, at least you'll leave the theater humming. How often can you say that at a new musical?
Billy Joel fans will have a great time getting lost in the music at the new Twyla Tharp musical "Movin' Out," while balletomanes can get lost in the absolutely phenomenal dancing. Audiences in neither camp might just get lost, unfortunately, since this adventurous new Broadway show, while offering plentiful moments of pleasure, doesn't quite evolve into the seamless mixture of music, dance and narrative that it sets out to be.
The show is already drawing hordes of excited boomers to the Richard Rodgers Theater on the strength of Joel's popularity, and they won't be disappointed: The hits are all here, sung with amazing stamina and obvious relish by a talented young piano man named Michael Cavanaugh, who presides over the proceedings, along with a nine-piece rock ensemble, from a fancy hydraulic bandstand that keeps movin' up and down and in and out, providing a proscenium within a proscenium for the danced drama unfolding below. (Santo Loquasto provides the spare settings, Suzy Benziger the colorful period costumes and the flashy lighting is by Donald Holder.)
That drama is performed by a cast of dancers as astonishingly gifted as any seen on Broadway in memory. John Selya, a veteran of American Ballet Theater who has collaborated with Tharp before, makes an electrifying Broadway debut as the troubled Vietnam vet who is at the center of much of the show. Dancing with extraordinary grace and mind-blowing athleticism, and acting with unforced charm, he infuses the second act with the consistent emotional pulse absent in the first. Keith Roberts, an ABT vet with Broadway experience, is likewise a naturally charismatic dancer with brilliant technique, and his pas de deux with the fabulously elastic Elizabeth Parkinson, of sky-high extensions and searing sex appeal, are among the show's mesmerizing highlights. In slightly smaller roles, Benjamin G. Bowman and Ashley Tuttle (an ABT principal dancer on leave, and on point) are no less accomplished, and help to imbue this sometimes wayward show with magnetic appeal through the sheer ebullience of their dancing.
It's in the relationship between the dancing, the drama and the music that "Movin' Out' sometimes comes up short, despite the intelligence and care that Tharp, a leading American choreographer for more than three decades, brings to it. The show represent a natural progression for Tharp, who has often experimented with pop vocal music (Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman and others) -- something many choreographers avoid. (Tharp is nothing if not fearless: She recently choreographed a ballet to Beethoven's "Seventh Symphony" for New York City Ballet.) Its primary antecedent in Tharp's oeuvre is probably her 1973 ballet "Deuce Coupe," set to Beach Boys songs, which commented more abstractly on the 1960s, the period that Tharp is exploring in specific detail here. Tharp also did the dances for Milos Forman's movie of "Hair," covering similar territory.
But she is clearly challenged by the task of telling a multilayered story in pure dance terms (never her specialty), and also challenged by the music -- despite her affection for it. Writing about "Deuce Coupe," New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce noted that "the music is a kind of music for which a dance idiom already exists." That can't be said for Joel's pop rock, which has a heavier tread than those feathery Beach Boys tunes, too. The songs are delivered at rock-concert volume here, and often seems to be more in competition with the choreography than working in concert with it; you often sense Tharp pushing up the volume -- piling on the athletic turns for Selya, the leaps for Roberts, the frenzied eroticism for Parkinson -- simply so the dancing can hold its own. And there are moments (the second act's "Pressure") when the contrast between some of Tharp's lyrical dancing and the hard-driving guitar music produces an effect dangerously akin to camp. (How Eddie's mortifyingly silly S&M fantasia sequence survived the show's Chicago tryout is anyone's guess, by the way.)
Nevertheless, on its own terms the choreography is always exciting, even if it is, like the story and Joel's instantly hummable tunes, rarely subtle. It is grounded in the classical ballet vocabulary, but the shapes are looser and freer, and steps are combined with vernacular movement and the occasional bit of literal miming. It's probably not Tharp at the top of her form, but it's first-class pop ballet.
The narrative focuses on the exploits of a gang of high school buddies graduating into a changing world in 1960s Long Island. As first presented, in a romp set to the thumping beat of Joel's "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," the boys are identified by the names on their letter jackets, the girls by the color of their hair. High-spirited frolicking around a vintage Mustang concludes with the perky redhead Brenda (Parkinson) separating herself from the pack, but it is really not until the trio of young men whose diverging destinies are the focus of the show -- Selya's Eddie, Roberts' Tony and Bowman's James -- march off to Vietnam that a coherent story comes into focus.
That narrative, as it unfolds across a more cogent second act, has its moving aspects. But it is all rather generic. James is killed in action, and his widow, Judy (Tuttle), struggles to come to terms with his death. Eddie loses his way in the counterculture before emerging whole for an uplifting finale, while Tony and Brenda rekindle their love after a period of antagonism fueled by Tony's emotional problems.
Since the story is neither arresting in itself nor relayed with consistent clarity, the show is best enjoyed simply as a suite of dances. From the first act, a comic pas de trois for the guys lingers in the memory for its freshness and invention -- and for the haunting way it segues into a depiction of their conscription into the Army. Roberts and Parkinson have several intense pas de deux, culminating in a reconciliatory encounter in the second act set to Joel's "Shameless." Tuttle, a small-boned dancer with a delicate presence that brings a natural pathos to her character's plight, is winsomely elegant in her more overtly classical sequences. She plays a sort of spirit guide in the show's most galvanizing sequence, Eddie's second-act flashback to Vietnam, which features some of Tharp's most arresting choreography. Here, drama, dance and music -- Joel's mournful anthem "Goodbye Saigon" -- coalesce terrifically.
That they only do so intermittently will be a disappointment to those hoping the next great Broadway dance musical had arrived. (Count me among those.) But Joel's fans aren't likely to complain about a show that brings some 30 of his compositions to Broadway. If they continue to turn out as they have in previews, "Movin' Out" will be hangin' around for a while. As one of Joel's Hicksville kids might put it: "Yo! 'Mamma, Mia!' Move over!"