Movin’ Out

Direction and Choreography Twyla Tharp; Music Billy Joel

Dates & Venue 5 – 9 December 2007, 8pm (Sun 7:30pm + Sat & Sun matinees at 2pm) | Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver

Reviewer John Jane

I’ve always felt there is an enigmatic quality to Billy Joel’s music. Most of his tunes are catchy on first hearing them and yet they reveal a deeper poignancy on closer listening. One of the best examples of Joel’s unique style is the metaphorical “Captain Jack” about a fictitious drug dealer. With aphotic lyrics that were ahead of its time and seven minutes long it predictably got little radio air play but gained underground popularity.

Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, Movin' Out seems to follow a current trend in new musicals by coalescing a selection of well-known songs by a credible artist and framing it around a simple storyline. The formula worked with ABBA and Mamma Mia! and to a lesser extent with Queen and It’s a Kind of Magic – so, why not with Billy Joel?

Twyla Tharp is not renowned for following trends – she sets them. With barely a single word of dialogue, Movin' Out is not really a musical at all, but a full length ballet. Consequently, Tharp’s linear choreography and Joel’s smart compositions must drive the story.

Thanks mainly to an assembly of incredibly talented dancers and the always visible, seven piece solid rockin’ band led by "Piano Man" Matthew Friedman, who performed Billy Joel’s two dozen tunes as if they were his own, Movin' Out is an amazing success.

The opening strains of the overture, a lively rendition of the up-tempo “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” promised an evening of exciting theatre. Movin' Out tells its story in two acts - an American urban saga of friendship, death and ultimate salvation against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The lives of five blue-collar Long Islanders are chronicled through twenty-four continuous vignettes that vary in shades of dark and light. Tharp’s choreography is most compelling in the dramatic darker shades.

The savagely kinetic Vietnam sequence, performed to “Start the Fire” is particularly harrowing. Though, for sheer artistry, the wildly hedonistic sequence where one of the characters drifts into nightmares after getting high and the powerfully emotive fight scene performed to “Captain Jack” and “Big Shot” respectively take top honours. Less imaginative is the “Uptown Girl” dance segment that borrows much from Billy Joel’s original promotion video.

Kelly Tighe’s set is effectively minimalist (that is, except for the late-sixties model red convertible brought on stage in the early scenes), while Susy Benzinger’s costumes accurately represent East Coast style and attitude over the two decade period. The only drawback to be found in this otherwise excellent production is Donald Holder’s harsh strip lighting that glares right out at the audience.

The agility, grace, and compelling characterizations performed by the dancers make Movin' Out a musical experience not to be missed.

© 2007 John Jane