Jumpin’ Joel

Movin’ Out is more than just a hit parade
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 29, 2006

To say that Movin’ Out is more than a jukebox musical only begins to describe its ambitions. It’s also more than a dance performance, more than a pop opera, and so much more than a best hits compilation of Billy Joel songs.

And it’s at the Providence Performing Arts Center (through December 3), thundering across the stage in a riveting experience that multiplies each of the above offerings by each of the others. Synergy has never been more entertaining.

Twyla Tharp conceived, choreographed, and directed the 2003 Broadway production that won her Tony Awards for directing and choreography, losing out to Hairspray for best musical.

Movin’ Out tells a tale only in the loosest sense, being a pastiche of three-minute story-songs, after all, however skillfully strung together. The main couple are Brenda and Eddie, from “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” The title song gives us Tony and Sgt. O’Leary. And Billy Joel fans couldn’t very well do without James, from “James.” Judy is here from “Why Judy Why,” though her song is not.

But there’s nothing wrong with piecing together set pieces if your purpose is emotional rather than narrative continuity, and Movin’ Out is nothing if not full of feelings. That’s maintained not only by smartly sequenced songs — there is no dialogue — but also by the physical urgency of virtually nonstop dance. As is appropriate to the minimal storyline of romance and post-Vietnam war anguish, that sustained choreography is both relentlessly athletic and exquisitely balletic. Since the dancers are human rather than android, they don’t sing the songs — that’s done admirably by piano man Darren Holden and a band back above the stage.

This may be more of a ballet than a musical or even modern dance, truth be told, but ever since the Sharks and Jets merged switchblade lunges with face-off pirouettes on the wide screen, the discipline abruptly stopped being sissy stuff.

There is a rudimentary story here or, more accurately, a dreamy fog of relationships against which the main characters step forward now and then. We start out in the 1960s on Long Island, getting to know some high school friends. Eddie (Ron Todorowski) and Brenda (Holly Cruikshank) are the prom queen and king, but Eddie has too much of an eye for the girls to not get his ring tossed back at him. For contrast are James (Matthew Dibble) and Judy (Laura Feig), the steadfast romantic couple. Waiting in the wings is their friend Tony (David Gomez), who takes up with Brenda. As you can assume, Act I does not lack for pas de deux.

The Vietnam war takes us to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the boys to another world. We visit long enough to see James killed in a firefight that happens only because the squad, including Tony, went back for Eddie, who was freaking out in some drugged-out reverie. Act II is introduced in a stateside bar with “Angry Young Man,” where Tony and especially Eddie exorcise their demons with some of Tharp’s kick-box-snappy choreography. (Todorowski’s spinning-top blur of grand jetés is as eyebrow-raising as Baryshnikov’s in White Nights.) Also impressive is the emotion-apt song sequence that follows: “Big Shot” to “Big Man on Mulberry Street” to “Captain Jack,” the titles alone painting the picture of tough adjustment. Needless to say, things end up OK between Tony and Brenda, and Judy eventually forgives the guilt-ridden Eddie.

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