Movin' Out: Tharp Ballet Makes for High Level Musical Theatre
Also see Bob's review of Little Shop of Horrors
The second national touring company of the Twyla Tharp-Billy Joel dance musical sensation Movin' Out is performing this week only at Newark's NJPAC. This dynamic bolt of lightning is in amazingly terrific shape. So, if you have never seen it or are longing for your Tharp-Joel fix, NJPAC is where you will want to be.
As is common in narrative ballets, it is sometimes difficult to follow the plot. However, there is a brief synopsis provided in the program. The following is a slightly modified version of that synopsis.
The Vietnam era story draws upon characters that appear in Billy Joel songs. The king and queen of the prom, Eddie and Brenda, have grown apart, while long time sweethearts James and Judy are ready for marriage. Their friend Tony is looking for that kind of love, and he finds it with Brenda. War takes the men away from home, leaving their loved ones to wait and worry. James is killed in combat, while Tony and Eddie return home broken as Judy grieves.
Neither Eddie nor Tony can get their lives back together after their Vietnam experience. Tony can't seem to find a way to reconnect with Brenda. Eddie descends self destructively into a world of despair and drug addiction. He imagines Judy as his guide as he tours through a nightmare of his past. Soon after, he encounters Judy jogging in the park, and her warmth and forgiveness leads him to finally set his life back on track. Brenda and Tony rediscover their love for each other enabling them to heal their wounds. All four rekindle their friendship. In reuniting they discover they have all found their way back home.
There is virtually no dialogue. The story is told through dance movement and the Billy Joel songs which provide most of the music. The music is played by an excellent seven-piece band which is placed on a metal platform running across the stage about fifteen feet up from the floor. As the songs are from the Billy Joel catalogue, they often provide mood, emotion and context rather than specifically illuminating characters and plot. However, they invariably fit the mood and action. There are more than a few instances when music and lyrics combine with the dance to elicit strong emotional involvement. Matthew Friedman, the piano man and lead vocalist, brings a fervor and raspy musicality to his vocals which capture the Billy Joel spirit. The music and dance do not compete for the spotlight here, but they lift up one another ever higher and higher. The audience response makes it clear that the unparalleled success of this dance musical has been considerably enhanced by the popularity of the music of Billy Joel. Even the sound design provides a clearer, more melodious tone than most other touring entities arriving here.
Since I first saw it, I have considered Movin' Out to the best dance musical that I have ever encountered. This is not to deny that it is a ballet. However, any attempt to pigeon hole it exclusively into one category strikes me as misguided. Popular American songs are integral to telling Movin' Out's story. It has been described both as a rock opera and as a jukebox musical. The songs are so uniquely well integrated into the fabric of the show that it pains me to think of it in the latter category. The dance vocabulary certainly makes considerable use of classic, traditional ballet. However, it also includes Broadway, jazz, Latin, ballroom and uniquely Tharp dance movement. It has a pizzazz, which cries out American musical theatre. The end result is high level, popular entertainment which delights musical theatre audiences including those who do not relate to traditional ballet. If it had opened on Broadway this season, it would likely be a shoo-in for the Tony Award for Best Musical (it was nominated in that category, but won only for choreography and orchestrations).
The second time I saw Movin' Out was a weeknight during the second year of its Broadway run. In my experience, the quality of dance musical productions had quickly deteriorated noticeably early into their runs. John Selya and company blew the roof off the Richard Rodgers that night. The performance had the feel of an opening night. It was clear that in addition to her creative skills, Twyla Tharp was a perfectionist who had a deep respect for her art and her audience. So I was prepared for the excellence now on stage at NJPAC.
The only director-choreographer credit is for Tharp, so it seems safe to assume that she did not turn over the reins to mount the current tour to anyone else. The brilliant scenic, lighting and costume designs by the original design team (Kelly Tighe, Donald Holder and Suzy Benzinger) all look spanking fresh.
Each of Tharp's dancers is terrific. The rangy and powerful Brett Emmons is superb as the troubled Eddie. No, Emmons did not make me forget John Selya, but his work is so strong that it reminded me of Selya. It is difficult to blow that high roof off NJPAC's large Prudential Hall, but depicting Eddie's determined and impassioned recovery (danced to "River of Dreams," "Keeping the Faith" and "The Good Die Young"), Emmons gives it quite a good shot with his amazing leaps, spins and turns. Three other dancers perform this role on this tour. Having seen the power and extension shown by members of the ensemble and given Tharp's perfectionism, none are likely to disappoint. Amanda Kay is a particular delight as Brenda. Kay's perkiness and her execution of the charming, lithe and unique choreography, combine with the catchiness of the tune and lyric to make "Uptown Girl" a first act delight. There is an ethereal delicacy to the movements of Karolina Blonski's Judy and Eric Bourne's James as they demonstrate their love for each other to the lovely "Just the Way You Are." John Corsa as Tony, along with Amanda Kay's Brenda perfectly conveys Tharp's clever vision of two lovers thinking of one other across half the earth as each dances with another partner ("She's Got a Way"). Finally, the entire ensemble gets a chance to let loose joyously with the back on track friends to the tune of "I've Loved These Days." I would not have been surprised if someone told me that this roof raiser was responsible for the large electrical storm which hit northern New Jersey during its performance.
Movin' Out continues performances through June 15, 2008 at Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), One Center Street, Newark, N.J., 07102. Box Office: 888-466-5722; online: www.njpac.org for performance schedule.
Movin' Out Conceived, Directed and Choreographed by Twyla Tharp; Music and Lyrics by Billy Joel