"Movin' Out" - The Review
I didn't get to see the show, but my lovely wife Jeanette did, so here's her review of the show Movin' Out:
The Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center hosted a near-capacity crowd on Friday, for the national tour of Movin' Out - "The Billy Joel, Twyla Tharp Sensation" through the Marshall Artists Series. Here is my "four-dimensional" review of the show:
DIMENSION 1 - THE VENUE:
For me, Movin' Out was a great opportunity to spend an evening with my sister Denise (thanks for sharing your Christmas gift)! It also offered a chance to experience professional theatre in Huntington just a few weeks after taking in a big show (Wicked) at the Ford Performing Arts Center Oriental Theater in Chicago. While the Oriental Theater is an architectural gem in its own right, for the money you will not find a lovelier venue than Huntington's Keith-Albee. (You can see pictures on the Keith Albee photo gallery right here.)
The Artists Series has put together a wonderful season of Broadway touring shows for 2008, and despite ongoing renovation (that each ticket sale contributes to), the Keith-Albee has what it takes right now - in ambiance, acoustics and technical capacity - to do justice to a great national touring show. So save your entertainment budget on trips to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh theaters, and be sure to take in at least one Artists Series show this year, and support a cultural renaissance in downtown Huntington! Envision the economic possibilities of a year-round, 52-weekend schedule of quality entertainment at the Keith-Albee. (That concludes my editorial comment - now onto the show). VENUE GRADE: A
DIMENSION 2 - THE STORY:
Movin' Out was conceived by renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp, inspired by the songs of and in collaboration with Billy Joel. The show consists of 24 Billy Joel songs, strung together to tell the story of five Long Island friends (Brenda, Eddie, Tony, Judy and James) over several decades. There is no dialogue; the only spoken word scenes at all consisted of the cadence of an Army drill sergeant and his recruits/draftees. The story is told through the songs, and through the dance movements of the five principles and a dozen or so ensemble dancers.
The set was minimal and split-level: it consisted of a smooth black dance surface; a black fenced-in scaffold spanning the width of the stage that held two "Piano Men" and 6 other black-clad band members suspended and fully visible above the dancers; and various colored lights, strobes and fog effects. At times the lighting and focus was on the musicians. (Sitting in the loge, it was great to have a view of the keyboards.) The only other set pieces to appear during the show were two bars (the cocktail lounge kind).
Now for the plot - the story takes off with two songs from The Stranger album (one of my college sing-along staples) - "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" and "Movin' Out." Tharp has wrestled a plot out of the relationship between Brenda and Eddie (or as we all really call them, "Brender-n-Eddie"), and Tony (as in "Anthony works in a grocery store"). She takes the characters, bumps the story back from the Summer of '75 to the Summer of '65, and goes from there, through the Vietnam War, the disillusionment of the '70s, the big-livin' '80s... and if this is starting to sound super-awkward to you, then you're right with me on the only real weakness of this show.
The plot of Movin' Out is not much more than the kind of clunky story that dance teachers put into ballet recital programs each spring to tie together the different numbers. (Which brings to mind the 1977 Village Ballet Theatre recital at the Barboursville High School auditorium, which featured all Star Wars songs and had various classes of dancers as stormtroopers, space princesses and whatnot - I simply must dig that program out of my scrapbox one of these days and re-read that plot synopsis for laughs).
Anyway, the Movin' Out plot synopsis is just eleven sentences long. The first five scene titles: "Brenda and Eddie Split," "Tony Moves Out," "James and Judy are Forever," "Brenda is Back," and "Tony and Brenda Get Together." It wasn't until intermission that I knew all that stuff was happening - I was too focused on the flirty pairs dancing and guys doing synchronized pirouettes in Converse hightops. It isn't until the war and its aftermath that the story begins to resonate. While there is eventually an emotional payoff to the sweep of events that left its mark on a whole generation, forcing the story into the lives of these particular five song characters (and what song is Judy from, anyway?) seemed a little unnecessary to me. So, STORY GRADE: C
DIMENSION 3 - THE DANCING
Which brings me to the fact that Movin' Out is nothing more than a rock & roll ballet, and nothing less. The athleticism and power of the dancers was something that audiences might take for granted after a while, but when you think that this is live, nonstop dancing for two hours, it's more than impressive, especially to amateur dance class veterans like my sister and me.
Tharp's combination of ballet and modern dance was surely revolutionary a few decades ago. Now it's not at all unusual for the dance world to combine ballet with jazz, modern and break dancing (even a well-received moonwalk). All the same, her choreography serves the story well and is often dazzling to watch. Highlights for me were a one-man reenactment of the Vietnam War experience in "We Didn't Start the Fire," an exquisite en pointe solo in the "The Stranger," and the joyful, African-inspired groove to "River of Dreams."
FYI: Twyla Tharp opened another Broadway dance collaboration based on the songs of Bob Dylan in 2006.
At this point you may ask yourself, what about the guys in the audience? I mean, Chuck Minsker didn't buy a ticket and he practically worships Billy Joel! At which point, I can only allude to the three little boys (about 8 to 10 years old, one of them with sharp little elbows) sitting with a family near me. They were a little restless and talky for the first half of Act 1, but once the male dancers went "Off to War," they became more interested. During Act 2, the boys were riveted. (In fact, during the debauched "Eddie Gets High"/"Captain Jack" scene I had to cast a glance at least twice to be entertained by their open-mouthed expressions as the tall, scantily-clad drag queen was shimmying over the bar. Denise and I both resisted the urge to turn around and look at their parents in mock-disapproval.)
All in all, though the beginning of Act I was slightly repetitive, by Act II, the principals (especially "Eddie") were earning mid-song ovations. The company was expressive, tireless and a joy to watch throughout. DANCE GRADE: A
DIMENSION 4 - THE MUSIC
Anytime you know you're going to see a cover band doing songs you love, you're naturally wary. But from the first overture, "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me," all skepticism left me. Having the band lighted and featured at the beginning of the split-level performance, even before the dancers appeared, let me know I was in for something special. Joel's song arrangements, while modified in tempo for a few of the dances, hit home, and the band and acoustics were rock concert-worthy (again, another reason the Keith-Albee is such a jewel, people).
The lead Piano Man, Matthew Friedman I believe, didn't try to imitate Billy Joel, but his vocals had the same quality of being both melodic and muscular. The piano parts were dead-on, and the mix of Piano Men, backing vocals, drums and horns were just about worth the ticket price, even if the dancers had never entered the stage. Long story short, I really, really liked the band. (It dawned on me later that just about every band member was bald... hmmm.)
Being my age, I knew all but one of the songs by heart, and was silently mouthing along to many of my favorites, especially the lesser-known but classic "Summer, Highland Falls," "Angry Young Man" and the haunting "Goodnight Saigon." Billy Joel has that rare knack for writing songs that, whether simple pop songs or sweeping epics, are always deeply emotional and timeless, as this show proves. Experiencing so many of them in succession, orchestrated so well and interpreted in a way that helps us visually relate to our own life stories, is the real heart and gift of Movin' Out. Thank you Twyla Tharp, and Long Live Billy Joel!! MUSIC GRADE: A+
You can read more about the show in this story in today's Herald-Dispatch and see photos from the show at this photo gallery.