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Chicago by Charles Eichler

Movin' Out

Also see Charles' recent review of Beautiful Thing

Movin' Out, now playing in its world premiere engagement at Chicago's Shubert Theatre until September, is in simple terms, "sizzling." This show has enough going for it that it could simply melt-down Broadway when it arrives later this year. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp with music and lyrics by Billy Joel, the show features an exuberant cast of dancers who shower sweat all over the Shubert stage with their energy and velocity, outstanding musical arrangements, vocalization and back-up orchestration, state-of-the-art production skills, and a slickness I haven't seen in a show for a long time. Now, if the fuse would only ignite before act two!

Movin' Out, at its core, tries to combine 26 songs written by Billy Joel over the course of his career into a plot that has no dialogue, just music and dance. This is not a revue of Joel's songs, like Fosse (highlighting Fosse's career) nor is it an attempt to let the composer's work tell a story, such as with The Who's Tommy. And it's certainly not as embarrassing as Mamma, Mia! with its "Hullabaloo" frenzy. Ms. Tharp has chosen instead to intertwine a threadbare story about four friends who embrace, then detest, and eventually rekindle their friendship with each other before and after the Viet Nam War era. Joel's music and Tharp's choreography are key in explaining their personality changes.

A problem with this concept, however, becomes very clear in act one, which is clumsy, confusing and cluttered with too much exposition. Quite simply, too much happening. Eddie, clinging to the '50s and his wife Brenda, who wants a life of her own, are introduced in production numbers that recall a combination of Grease, West Side Story and even a hint of Bourne's Car Man (the set even resembles that show - with a fence facing the audience upstage). Then we meet Tony, a Beatles fan who is ready to move out. James, Eddie's best friend and Tony's brother, proposes to his forever sweetheart Judy, and they plan to settle down. This all culminates in the Viet Nam War and its after-effects on their lives. Joel's music and Tharp's choreography are strung together to follow this plot, and it becomes very confusing as to what really is happening. A murky interlude about Viet Nam fighting and the death of comrades is not clear. There's even a slice of Miss Saigon brought in ... but without the helicopter.

Act one's production numbers, including "This Night," "We Didn't Start the Fire" (an embarrassment - and this is my favorite Billy Joel number) and "For the Longest Time/Uptown Girl" further disjoint the action. There is simply a lack of coherence in the storyline and in the development of any character we can identify as a protagonist. Furthermore, Joel's songs do not seem to fit what is happening on stage.

Act two is where the excitement begins. We can guess that the four principles will feud, seek other companions and then reunite, but what rapture occurs in their endeavors! Here, each musical number complements what is happening to the characters. Every Joel composition, every Tharp dance hits the target. "Big Shot" is outstanding. "Captain Jack" and "Big Man on Mulberry Street" keep the action flowing, and "River of Dreams/ Keeping the Faith/Only the Good Die Young" bring the whole ensemble together in a rapturous production number.

The choreography is exciting, personal to each character and simply breathtaking. Each kick, muscle movement, flip, and contortion is a beautiful creation. It is simply a joy to sit back and watch the dancers work with precision, timing and a pure joy for what they are doing.

The cast is fresh, full of energy, spark and talent. In the key role of Eddie, John Selya simply exhausts the viewer with his radiant smile, well-disciplined body and swooping energy. Karine Bageot (understudy for Brenda at this performance) is a delight to behold and watch; Ron De Jesus (understudy for Tony) at this performance simply brings "guts" to his role. In fact, the whole ensemble of dancers is top-notch.

Tharp's choreography (though repetitious at times) features a variety of solo/duet and ensemble numbers. Each flows with a passion that is often matched with Joel's music. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto is minimal; the band is featured on a second story tier that rises and lowers according to the action. Piano/lead vocals performed by Wade Preston (usually performed by Michael Cavanaugh) are impressive, resonant and clearly in the mode of Billy Joel himself; the orchestration is well in harmony with the lyrics, Joel's artistry and the dancers' precision.

Lighting designer Donald Holder and Sound Designers Brian Ruggles and Peter Fitzgerald are to be applauded for their efforts. The production ignites with a multitude of light and sound effects. Costume designer Suzy Benziner is also to be complimented for providing simple but alluring costumes.

I hope "the fire is burning." This is a show that needs to prove itself well worth the trip to Broadway. With some fine tuning, and repairs on act one, this could be the torpedo Chicago sends to New York after failing with premieres of The Visit and Sweet Smell of Success.

Movin' Out continues at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, Chicago, Illinois through September 1st. For tickets and further information, contact 312-902-1400.

Production Numbers (as of 7/24/2002)

Act One:

"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"
"I Go to Extremes"
"Movin' Out"
"Reverie (Villa D'Este)/Just the Way You Are"
"For the Longest Time/Uptown Girl"
"This Night"
"Summer, Highland Falls"
"Waltz #1/(Nunley's Carousel)"
"We Didn't Start the fire"
"She's Got a Way"
"The Stranger"
"Elegy"
"2000 Years"

Act Two:

"Invention in C Minor"
"Angry Young Man"
"Big Shot"
"Big Man on Mulberry Street"
"Captain Jack"
"Innocent" Man"
"Pressure"
"Goodnight Saigon"
"Air (Dublinesque)"
"Shameless"
"James"
"River of Dreams/Keeping the Faith/ Only the Good Die Young"
"I've Loved These Days"
"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant (Reprise)"

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- Charles



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