The producers of Twyla Tharp’s unusual and honorably ambitious attempt to fuse a bookless, but not storyless, Broadway show from the diverse Billy Joel backlist had better start riffling through their emergency Rolodexes under W for writer and D for director. For despite top-notch dancers, a brilliant young vocalist fronting a sizzlin’, boomer-friendly rock band and some occasionally gorgeous and even thrilling choreography, “Movin’ Out” won’t start any fires on Broadway unless several serious problems get a fast fix.
For starters, the music and dance need to be unified; the wildly uneven narrative requires immediate extrication from the world of cartoons and overblown archetypes; the main characters desperately need to be more empathetic; and the overly intense show could use a jot of humor and irony.
All that said, it’s a mistake to underestimate the potential popularity of a Broadway show based around Joel’s music. And especially when Tharp finally lets herself go in the last three numbers of the show, her classy yet accessible choreography is typically rich and tremendously invigorating.
It may be considered outmoded pop by some, but Joel’s music actually is a remarkably diverse and stylistically complex body of work that’s well suited to dance and theater. And, of course, Joel’s work has a built-in audience of fans, all of whom will be greatly impressed by the quality of the live musical interpretation of his numbers (organized by Joel’s people, the band goes well beyond a “Mamma Mia!”-style pit group).
Equally enjoyable for a mainstream crowd is the dancing of Tharp’s illustrious group, which showcases the splendidly expressive likes of Elizabeth Parkinson and Keith Roberts. But those factors, in themselves, will not be enough for boffo B.O. without clearer storytelling.
The concept here takes some explaining. Tharp, a choreographer with a long-standing interest in iconic popular music, listened to Joel’s body of work and decided to meld the songs into one long narrative. The songs are sung by Michael Cavanaugh (located, with the band, on a platform above the action), not by any of the characters.
Tharp pulled the premise of the show mainly from “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” (in which Brenda and Eddie, King and Queen of the Parkway Diner, marry and then hit the rocks) and “Movin’ Out” (in which Anthony works in a grocery store and one Sergeant O’Leary moonlights as a bartender). In Tharp’s show, which employs some cross-Joel mating practices, Brenda dumps Eddie and hooks up with Tony from a different song.
After introducing this quartet of lower-middle-class Long Island children of the ’60s, and then adding two other characters from more obscure Joel songs into the mix — James (from “James”) and his wife, Judy — Tharp throws everyone into a Vietnam quagmire.
Dumped Eddie, who has a rough time all night, blames himself for James’ death in ‘Nam, and, late in the second act, finally gets Judy’s (and his own) forgiveness. Meanwhile, Brenda and Tony fight off the demons of the early 1970s — war, drugs etc. — as they try to forge a relationship.
Although there are only a couple of words of dialogue, all of this stuff flows with varying levels of ease from Joel songs — the Vietnam sequences, for example, come from “Good Night Saigon” and the post-war angst is expressed by “Pressure.” Some of the numbers are used inventively (such as the brilliant treatments of “Big Shot” and “Just the Way You Are”); others feel awkward (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”).
“Movin’ Out” does not need to be — indeed, it cannot be — a full-blown book musical. Audiences will accept its unusual style. And, even now, it’s not hard to follow the basic elements of the narrative.
But in the need to get across what’s going on, there’s far too much resorting to staggering crudity — the married Brenda appearing in a shrew’s hairnet; a terrible “Miss Saigon” wannabe number in which Tony interacts with a Saigon whore while his lover does an erotic dance in a strip joint back home. When the show’s subtle and free, it works fine — the far stronger second act comes to a thrilling close, and there are some brilliant choreographic renditions of Eddie’s inner pain. But all the cheap stuff has got to go.
Cavanaugh, on a platform that should down front near the audience more, also needs to know if he should be relating to the dancers or occupying his own little world, merely providing a score. Right now, his musically brilliant performance does neither fully. And when John Selya’s Eddie finally does a moonwalk late in the show, the Chi audience positively exploded with laughter — a fair indication of how much they wanted to laugh and relax far earlier in the might.
Joel, in attendance at the final previews, was singing cheerily along with his own work. But this show needs an outside eye to whip its story into shape. Since Joel’s material goes only so deep, it would be better to exploit its cheerfully middle-brow sensibility and concentrate on forging an emotional, inventive entertainment for those who grew up with his records spinning for years on our stereos.