Movin' Out

Movin' Out moved me deeply; I'm not sure that I've entirely recovered from the experience almost a week after seeing it. The energy in the theatre during this show is wondrous—by the time the show reaches its home stretch in a jubilant prolonged finale, performers and audience members seem to breathe as one, hearts and souls wrapped around Billy Joel's anthemic tunes and Twyla Tharp's evocative dances. I haven't had this kind of a time in the theatre in ages. This is a transcendent, thrilling, cathartic show. It's the only truly must-see production on Broadway right now.

Enough hyperbole: let me try to convey Movin' Out to you, for it's not like anything I've ever seen before. Some frames of reference to help you peg it: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake (classical ballet in a Broadway house); Des McAnuff's staging of The Who's Tommy (rock favorites brilliantly realized by an artful director); Jonathan Larson's Rent (unabashed youthfulness and social consciousness); Jerome Robbins' West Side Story (pulsating youthful energy and abandon). Movin' Out is a dance play in twenty-four scenes (plus an overture), with a score of songs by Billy Joel. Tharp's dances tell a story at once timeless and exactly of our time ("our" referring, with characteristic tunnel vision, to the years when the Baby Boomers came of age, roughly 1965-1980). The music functions as soundtrack to an era and background music to the rituals of young people growing up: Movin' Out tells the story of three friends—Eddie, Tony, and James—who fall in love, go to war, die (one of them), return home (the other two) and try to make a life for themselves.

The genius of Movin Out' is the way the songs and choreography mesh. Tharp interprets Joel's music with astonishing acuity; yet the dances are less "to" the music than in juxtaposition with them, creating a tension that burrows under your skin. Tharp establishes the show's ground rules with a prologue to "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," introducing us to the band and the principals and getting us acquainted with a form that feels strange for about two minutes and then becomes comfortable: an abstract kind of theatre that's aware of itself as formalized band and ballet corps, yet at the same time feels like a bunch of pals from the neighborhood jamming and cutting up on someone's front lawn.

So Eddie and a girl named Brenda date, marry, and divorce to the strains of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" and James falls in love with a girl named Judy while they slow-dance to "Just the Way You Are." Eddie watches Tony and Brenda fall in love in "Summer, Highland Falls" ("They say that these are not the best of times/But they're the only times I've ever known"). Eddie, Tony, and James are drafted, and Tharp, in the first of several coup de theatres, gives "We Didn't Start the Fire" to Judy, Brenda, and the other women left at home. In "She's Got a Way," Tony dreams of Brenda and Brenda dreams of Tony, thousands of miles apart, he in a Saigon dive, she in a saloon in Hicksville. James is killed in battle, and the first act ends with a solemn "Elegy" in which his body is delivered to the grieving Judy.

Act Two is mostly about Tony and Brenda's rocky reunion (rendered in sexy dances to "Big Shot" and "Shameless") and, much more potently, Eddie's difficult return to civilian life. He sinks low (in a vividly wrenching "Captain Jack"), suffers from terrible nightmares ("Pressure," danced—in another coup—by black-clad women: furies?), and flashes back to his Vietnam experience (in the show's most powerful number, "Goodnight, Saigon," brilliantly staged by Tharp in dusky silhouette, a single Asian female dancer hovering dangerously close to the corps of male dancers in a visceral realization of the devastating lyric: "They heard the hum of our motors/They counted the rotors/And waited for us to arrive").

And then—release. Eddie finds himself in Joel's "River of Dreams," which leads to the rapturous, jubilant celebration of "Keeping the Faith" and the mature vision of the finale, "I've Loved These Days." Eschewing a pat happy ending, Tharp and Joel instead simply leave their characters grounded: in command of the past and unafraid of the future: "So before we end and then begin/We'll drink a toast to how it's been."

Movin' Out is performed by nine musicians and eighteen dancers, all of whom do extraordinary work here. Michael Cavanaugh is on piano and sings solo or lead on the songs—he's outstanding, and when he gets his moment alone in the spotlight, at the encore performing the crowd-pleaser "New York State of Mind," he gets a deserved, prolonged ovation. Tommy Byrnes on lead guitar never fails to thrill doing licks on songs like "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" and "Angry Young Man" and John Scarpulla on lead sax mesmerizes on "The Stranger" and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."

The principal dancers are John Selya (Eddie), Elizabeth Parkinson (Brenda), Keith Roberts (Tony), Ashley Tuttle (Judy), and Benjamin G. Bowman (James). Wow. Parkinson is explosively sexy, whether backed by a male quartet doing the dance equivalent of doo-wop in "Uptown Girl" or partnered by the strong and intense Roberts in a pas de deux. Tuttle and Bowman are unfailingly beautiful to watch. But it's Selya who takes our breath away, time and again, executing a breakdance spin that sums up the melancholy desperation of "Captain Jack" all by itself, or doing a gasp-inducing moonwalk across the stage and then a single, perfect leap in the blissfully infectious "River of Dreams."

The physical production is flawless, especially the sound design by Brian Ruggles and Peter J. Fitzgerald, which preserves the rock 'n' roll feel of Joel's score without breaking anybody's eardrums. Special mention must be made of Donald Holder's lighting, which brilliantly illuminates Tharp's intentions throughout (pun, alas, intended). Indeed, Movin' Out boasts impressive integration of all design elements: nothing in Santo Loquasto's minimalist set or Suzy Benzinger's stylized costumes ever feels out of place.

I went through college and early adulthood as a resolute Billy Joel fan, so I guess I was bound to love Movin' Out. But Tharp and her collaborators have transcended the pop nostalgia ethos here, creating a work of art that genuinely captures a way of life and a way of living. Images and sounds from this show have been stuck in my head for days now; this is theatre that gets in your system and lingers there, in the best way possible. Movin' Out, about renewal and hope itself, offers both of those things to those of us who believe in the urgent necessity of theatre. Tharp and Joel are, truly, keeping the faith.