Movin' Out Music and Lyrics by Billy Joel. Conceived by Twyla Tharp. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Suzy Benzinger. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Brian Ruggles, Peter J. Fitzgerald. Additional musical arrangements and orchestrations by Stuart Malina. Hair design b Paul Huntley. Synthesizer programmer David Rosenthal. Music coordinator John Miller. Musical consultant Tommy Byrnes. Assistant choreographer/assistant director Scott Wise. Musical continuity and supervision by Stuart Malina. Directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Starring John Selya, Elizabeth Parkinson, Keith Roberts, Ashley Tuttle, Scott Wise, Benjamin G. Bowman, and Michael Cavanaugh with Andrew Allagree, Mark Arvin, Karine Bageot, Aliane Baquerot, Alexander Brady, Holly Cruikshank, Ron De Jesus, Melissa Downey, Pascale Faye, Scott Fowler, David Gomez, Laurie Kanyok, William Marrié, Rod McCune, Jill Nicklaus, Rika Okamoto, Meg Paul, Wade Preston, Lawrence Rabson, Dana Stackpole, John J. Todd.
It's a popular trend these days for creators of new musicals to take existing songs, write a new libretto to sort of string them together, put the show onstage, and rake in the money from existing fans of the composer's work. Rest assured, Movin' Out isn't that kind of musical. But while the new show at the Richard Rodgers is more literate and entertaining than two recent examples, Mamma Mia! or the revised Flower Drum Song, it's not really a musical at all.
Movin' Out compares more readily to Contact, the "dance play" directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman for Lincoln Center a couple of years ago. Movin' Out, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, is more of a dance play without the play. There are characters - sort of - and there's live music (30 or so Billy Joel songs), but Movin' Out is a ballet no matter how you look at it.
From a pure technical standpoint, Movin' Out is quite an achievement. Though there are scenes and individual dramatic divisions in the story, the dancing is, for most intents and purposes, nonstop. And Tharp's dancing company is amazingly energetic. They have to be, given the frenetic and athletic moves Tharp has them doing for the better part of two hours. But they all make it look like it's the most natural thing any of them could be doing - Movin' Out has definitely been well cast.
But Movin' Out falters in telling its story, with Tharp too frequently willing to let dance inadequately communicate plot or emotion. The show's story follows a group of five friends (John Selya, Elizabeth Parkinson, Keith Roberts, Ashley Tuttle, and Benjamin G. Bowman) from their 1960s high school graduation to their reunion some years later. In between, everyone finds (or loses) love, the men go off to Vietnam (where one perishes on the battlefield), and everyone must readjust to life after the war.
There's a plot synopsis provided in the Playbill, and for good reason - with almost no spoken dialogue, the characters and story can occasionally be a challenge to follow. Tharp's dancing is always expressive, but usually in too general a way to really differentiate the characters or their relationships to each other. In the first act, especially, Tharp just doesn't devote quite enough time to giving each character a personality of his or her own.
The dancers' personalities do emerge over the course of the evening as they gain more solo time, and when it does come, it's difficult to not wish it had happened sooner. There are a few good moments - the funeral scene near the end of the first act, Selya's lengthy dances of hurt and angst in the second act, and a flashback showing the horrors of Vietnam - but many of the rest of the dances, exuberant as they are, seldom engage the audience emotionally on their own.
It's then that the show's most important single performer comes to the forefront and really rescues Movin' Out. Michael Cavanaugh is the lead piano player and singer in the band perched on a floating platform high above the stage, and he plays and sings all of the shows songs almost non-stop. The rest of the band is strong, but Cavanaugh stands out as a great singer, with an energetic personality and an apparently bottomless well of vocal stamina. He may occasionally turn out front to observe the events onstage or direct a lyric or emotion at the audience, but it's never necessary - his enthusiasm is infectious, and the fun he's having makes the show as a whole much more entertaining, giving Movin' Out the heart it lacks elsewhere.
Tharp's work is best when it integrates most solidly with the music and Cavanaugh's soulful performance. The best example of this is the first number, "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," focusing on the friends' adventures in high school. The others are less effective, ranging from the obvious ("Angry Young Men," danced by Selya's Eddie as a way of expressing his post-war rage) to the curious ("Uptown Girl," demonstrating the reinvention of Parkinson's Brenda).
In general, Tharp's work lands more securely in the second act when she has more specific things to focus on - the first act meanders and drags for want of specificity. The dancers reflect this, only really coming alive late in the show, though none really competes with Cavanaugh. Selya comes closest, particularly in his marathon sequence in the second act leading through depression, drug use, and eventually forgiveness and rebirth. Tuttle is very moving in the Vietnam flashback scene, and the dancers all have moments to shine, but Cavanaugh remains the real star throughout.
The evening's precarious balance is never more pronounced than at the curtain call when Cavanaugh throws the audience into an uproar by leading the band into the first few strains of "New York State of Mind." He commands the evening until the final moment, Joel's conduit to the audience, sometimes seeming to sidestep Tharp altogether. Her work does sometimes seem no more important than Santo Loquasto's sets or Suzy Benzinger's lights, lacking the soul the music and its primary performer provide for the show. This makes Movin' Out entertaining and musically satisfying, but far from great theatre or great ballet.