It should first be clarified that Movin' Out is not a musical, at least not in the conventional use of the term. It's more accurate to describe (and advertise) it as a ballet. Even though the show was nominated in the Best Musical category for the Tony Awards, the primary performers on stage are dancers. They do not sing or utter a single word (other than some brief military cadences). A band that hovers above the action supplies the songs. Though the show differs from traditional ballet by having lyrics accompany the music, and thus help with the storytelling, a lot of people who attend Movin' Out may be surprised to find the main characters silent.
That having been stated, Movin' Out is in many ways an effective piece of theater, and in other ways somewhat frustrating. Tharp is an innovative choreographer and director, and her dances are fresh and captivating throughout. The choreography is athletic, sexy, fluid, varied and unlike anything else found on Broadway. Her direction works generally well for the piece too, with sufficient pathos generated in her staging of scenes and a vibrant pace.
The show needs those gorgeous dances though, because the storytelling is lackluster at times. Without additional dialogue, the songs by Joel are relied upon to tell the entire story of a group of friends starting in the 1960s who strive to persevere through love, breakups, war, desperation and healing. Of course, Billy Joel didn't write these songs to be joined together in a ballet. He wrote them as wonderful story songs echoing his life and the world around him. Audiences know many of them from their opening chords, such as "Uptown Girl," "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me," and "She's Got a Way," but theatergoers will also discoverer some lesser known gems as well, like the moving "Goodnight Saigon" and the bluesy "Big Man on Mulberry Street". But, despite Joel's impressive song catalogue, the story that Tharp tells using them is too often ambiguous and confusing, and the motivations of the characters remain mostly unexplored. On opening night, many theatergoers could be heard giving thanks for the availability of a synopsis provided in the Playbill.
The songs that work the best in the context of the show are those where Tharp has staged her dances with the most theatricality. "Just the Way You Are" serves as a marriage proposal for two of the main characters, and really captures their love and the feelings surrounding the moment. "We Didn't Start The Fire" appropriately communicates the angst of the characters during the turbulent '60s. Many times, though, it is difficult to match the song to the plot or setting.
Leading a rockin' nine-piece band and providing lead vocals from his piano is Darren Holden. His smooth singing is a great fit for Joel's songs. Not enough can be said about the dance abilities of the 16-member ensemble, and especially the five leads. Holly Cruikshank (Brenda) and David Gomez (Tony) make a sultry and steamy couple, and Julieta Gros (Judy) and Matthew Dibble (James) are endearing as the high school sweethearts who marry, only to be torn apart by the ravages of the war in Vietnam. However, it is Brendan King as Eddie who really gets to shine the most. His high octane dancing and many acrobatic moves come from a seemingly never-ending supply of energy. All of the dancers, as well as Mr. Holden with his vocals, do a fine job of conveying the emotions and context of the plot.
The design elements of the show are a mixed bag. The lighting by Donald Holder leans towards the flashy rock concert style, without much subtlety, but is mostly effective. The costumes by Suzy Benzinger are attractive and usually do a good job of evoking the proper time period. Santo Loquasto's set design, however, misses many opportunities to clarify setting, with a bare stage too often the case for many scenes.
Audiences are bound to enjoy Movin' Out for the original, energetic dances and the catalog of wonderful Billy Joel songs, both of which are well executed by this cast. However, those also looking for a well-told story might be a bit disappointed. Movin' Out continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 6, 2005, and tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.