Choreographer-director Twyla Tharp, whose adventurous works have covered everyone from Beethoven to the Beach Boys, David Byrne and Frank Sinatra, claims, “Violence and sex … are at the heart of everything” she does. These qualities, joined with Billy Joel’s bursting intensity, make “Movin’ Out” a consistently driving and physical experience that drips passion from every pore.
The story of five small-town New York teens who struggle through relationships and the Vietnam war was assembled by piecing together songs not originally designed for a book show, and the blend is sometimes less than seamless. But when Tharp’s dancers leap, spin and streak across the Pantages stage, “Movin’ Out,” to paraphrase Tony in his song, keeps movin’ up to a mind-blowing plateau.
Joel, a 1999 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame winner, has a penchant for rhythmic and melodic variety, along with a gift for storytelling lyrics, making him an ideal theater composer. Darren Holden, the singer chosen to interpret Joel’s material on opening night (he alternates with Matt Wilson) is a first-rate choice. The difference in vocal tone — he’s not a Joel sound-alike — allows the show to be a theatrical vehicle rather than a concert. Holden further distinguishes himself with outstanding piano accompaniment.
Watching Eddie (Ron Todorowski) and long-legged Brenda (Holly Cruikshank) whirl their way into becoming Brenda and Eddie, prom king and queen and “the hit couple of the Parkway Diner,” is uplifting, and their moves neatly convey a couple breaking up. In soars Tony (David Gomez), a dynamically sensual young Brando type romancing Brenda on the rebound. Also an integral part of the group are James (Matthew Dibble) and Judy (Julieta Gros), a couple who transform the familiar sentiments of “Just the Way You Are” into something rapturously romantic.
Gene Kelly often said his aim was to make dancing something “a guy on the street could identify with,” rather than an elitist art form. Tharp’s mentor, Jerome Robbins, influenced her in this direction, and “Movin’ Out” is a muscular modern representation of that approach, with believably funky street-corner costumes by Suzy Benzinger and the kind of moves that prize-winning neighborhood dance contests might provide.
Joel varies the program with instrumental interludes. All work effectively and one stands out: “Elegy: The Great Peconic” (from the solo piano “Fantasies and Delusions” CD), with its mournful brass suspensions and a richly orchestrated theme in the tradition of such Golden Age film scorers as Steiner and Korngold.
Tharp’s staging of combat is grimly arresting, as the soldiers storm Santo Loquasto’s mound simulating a hill and James dies.
War’s enforced separation and its threat to parted lovers is examined in “She’s Got a Way,” during which Gomez and Cruikshank dance a poem of love to each other while fighting off seductive attempts by strangers. Cruikshank demonstrates amazing extensions, planting one leg on the ground and kicking the other up alongside her head with remarkable agility.
Eddie’s plunge into self-destruction and drugs (“Captain Jack,” “Angry Young Man,” “Pressure”) is too long, despite raw, jet-propelled staging, although it contains the evening’s emotional peak through a chorus of “Goodnight Saigon” (“We said we’d all go down together”). Parallels with the current Iraq conflict give Vietnam scenes an affecting timeliness.
“Shameless” is a song of naked physical desire, and Gomez and Cruikshank wrap around each other and turn up the heat. “River of Dreams,” featuring Todorowski and ensemble, offers a vibrant, toe-tapping release, ushering in “I’ve Loved These Days.” This sequence, with Gomez, Cruikshank and Todorowski, has an appropriately bittersweet joy, acknowledging youth is a struggle but worth cherishing for all its pain.
Sound by Brian Ruggles and Peter J. Fitzgerald rates special kudos, maintaining the excitement from Joel’s hand-picked band and still achieving enough balance to make every lyric audible. Donald Holder’s three tiers of blood-red lights encircled by smoke introduce the highly charged dramatics of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and from here the plot takes a tragic turn into a Vietnam battlefield.