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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Forget about trying to fit Movin' Out into a neat category. It has all the elements of a Broadway musical -- superb stagecraft; a big cast; songs that , thanks to the brilliant Twyla Tharp and that Pied Piper of Rock and Roll ballads, Billy Joel, tell a story. With a spectacular troupe of dancers, to interpret the story Tharp has ingeniously stitched together from two dozen Joel hits, dialogue would be superfluous. The program includes a helpful brief plot synopsis, but even if you don't read it, you'll have no problem following the story line and understanding what the characters are about.
Though Movin' Out is different it doesn't really break new ground. Ms. Tharp has long moved between classical and popular music (one of her best-known dance pieces, Deuce Coupe, featured the music of the Beach Boys). She also isn't the first to put on a musical without dialogue (Contact the dance play pushed the envelope of took the 2000 Tony for best musical had neither dialogue or a live orchestra). The critic proof Mamma Mia! also took its plot line from a bunch of super hit songs. What Movin' Over does is to prove once again is that musical theater is a continually evolving form that can be artistically as well as commercially viable. Now, with Thwarp as the matchmaker, this marriage of a rock and roll idol's music with ballet succeeds in appealing to audiences of all ages, backgrounds and tastes -- kids, young and older adults, ballet enthusiasts and, of course, the legion of Billy Joel fans.
The story built around Joel's songs is a simple Americana saga. Six young Long Islanders (much like the ones Joel grew up with) hang out together, fall in love, experience the traumas of Vietnam and its sex drugs and rock'n'roll aftermath. In the end they move from alienation to rekindled hope, love and friendship. Familiar stuff, but just the right underpinning for Joel's emotionally powerful songs and the pulsating choreography.
The dancers, all of whom have extensive ballet training and are familiar with Tharp's unique movement vocabulary, are nothing short of magnificent. They are also good actors, their faces as well as their bodies evoking all the feelings of each situation. Since their physical roles are, to put it mildly, demanding, the lyrics are delivered by Michael Cavanaugh, Movin' Out's "piano man." This most satisfying stand-in for Billy Joel and the rest of the terrific band are smartly positioned on an on-stage platform that, like the dancers, never stands still but moves from front to rear as well as up and down.
The dancers all dazzle with their agility, grace and evocative characterizations, from the "It's Still Rock 'n'Roll to Me" prologue in which they introduce themselves to the upbeat reunion to the tune of "I've Loved These Days. prologue " Elizabeth Parkinson is all fire and flash both as Brenda, the flirtatious "Uptown Girl" and an unforgettable, lacerating fight scene with Keith Roberts. Ashley Tuttle breaks your heart as the grief stricken young widow even as she amazes you with her backward toe dance. The standout, if one dares pick a star from this full of diamonds cast is John Selya as Eddie, Brenda's high school boy friend and the alienated veteran Some of his solos are gasp inducing.
While Joel fans will know his songs well enough to sing along with Michael Cavanaugh, this is not a sing-along. The dancing is too riveting and emotionally charged for audience participation or even head shaking and foot tapping. The urge to wave arms as at a concert is also distilled by the newnewss given to the songs within this concept; for example, the ballet by James, Judy and the ensemble that injects a delicate freshness into the almost overly familiar " Just the Way You Are." That's not to say there's a lack of wildly enthusiastic response, as indicated by the vigorous applause at the end of many scenes.
Cheers are also in order for the overall stagecraft. Santo Loquasto's scenic design is a case study in effective minimalism. The showiest prop, a 1967 Mustang convertible, neatly establishes the time frame, as do Suzy Benzinger's costumes. Donald Holder lights the set and dancers with his usual flair.
Once you've seen the show, you'll understand the necessity for the changing of the guard at the Wednesday and Saturday matinees. The credentials of the alternate matinee cast are excellent, so you're not likely to be disappointed whenever you go. Were it not for the cost of the tickets, you might just want to view both casts for once is hardly enough to see this vivid demonstration of the power of visionaries like Twyla Tharp to move theater out of its semantic genre confines to rouse our senses.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF SHOWS MENTIONED
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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