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Movin' Out
a Musical
by Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp

COMPANY : Broadway Across America [WEBSITE]
VENUE : The Fabulous Fox [WEBSITE]
ID# 3392

SHOWING : May 01, 2009 - May 03, 2009



Form and Flash meet Grit and Saturday in this marriage of the choreography of Twyla Tharp and the songs of Billy Joel. A Working Class Ballet!

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Tharp / Joel
by Dedalus
Thursday, May 14, 2009
“Movin’ Out,” the Twyla Tharp ballet based on the songbook of Billy Joel, flashed through the Fox Theatre last week for a criminally brief three-day run. This is a perfect show for anyone who is a fan of athletic and jaw-droppingly risky choreography, for anyone who enjoys blazing theatrics with their ballets, and, especially, for anyone who loves the songs of Billy Joel. And, by the time you read this, it’ll have packed its trunks and moved on out of town. If that’s moving up …

The storyline, such as it is, takes its characters from Joel’s songs – Brenda and Eddie are the too-young-to-wed couple who divorce in the opening, Tony is the “Anthony” from the title song, and James and Judy are the too-in-love-to-survive couple. We follow these friends through two decades of American History as they live through divorce and war and drugs and growing up and the full panoply of middle-class Americana that is the backbone of Billy Joel’s music. But the storyline is not the point. In fact, it’s often incomprehensible, owing to similar-looking dancers cast as Brenda and Judy and as Tony and James. It’s far too easy to lose track of whose part of the story we’re watching at any time.

What is the point is the brilliant choreography of Twyla Tharp, the astounding talent of the dancers, and the pointed and too-familiar songs of Billy Joel.

Twyla Tharp hit New York City in the early sixties, the same time Billy Joel was first performing before audiences. After working with such dance icons as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, Ms. Tharp formed her own dance company. Influenced by Balanchine and mentored by both Graham and Cunningham, she developed a very unique and identifiable style which favored natural body movement, and using the human body as a canvas for story-telling. Her work often eschews heavily synchronized group numbers in favor of individualized character-driven interactive – her works are often human jigsaw puzzles in which her dancers are the pieces that paint a more complete picture. I remember enjoying her work on TV variety shows in the late sixties and early seventies, and thought she was the perfect fit for the 1979 Milos Forman movie of “Hair,” with its “Do-your-own-thing” subtexts.

I first saw Billy Joel in concert when I was still in college, shortly after “Piano Man” came out. He was coming to our campus for a one-night-only show (this was fall 1973, I believe). It was a small central PA town, miles from the turnpike or any airport, and his sound truck inevitable got lost. The warm-up act held the stage for hours while we waited (they were, thankfully, very good, and Joel’s own band came onstage to jam with them), and Mr. Joel didn’t actually start until after midnight. He didn’t stop for at least three hours. It remains, to this day, the best concert I’ve ever attended. (And, as an amusing digression, I had some roomies who refused to go, saying “I’m not spending two dollars to see a guy I never heard of.” Ah, the choices we make without hindsight!)

This show demonstrates that Ms. Tharp and Mr. Joel are a match made in Musical Heaven. Billy Joel wrote and sang about the working class, Long Island kids who grow up too quickly and cruelly. Ms. Tharp dresses them in movements that start simply and build in complexity as the characters grow or choose more self-destructive paths. The men are all macho posturing (even the gentle and doomed James); the women start as innocent temptation, little girls playing with the fire of sexuality, growing into experienced dynamos of confidence and grief. At one point in “Captain Jack,” Eddie does a series of rapid “in place” cartwheels, a physical achievement I can’t imagine, as if his “high” turned his body into a human pinwheel. In another number, Judy (or was it Brenda?) dove head-first over the back of her partner, saved from a neck-breaking accident only by her trust in her partner and his split-second timing. Not only are we seeing characters on a razor-edge of risk and nothing-to-lose bravado, we are seeing dancers on that same knife’s-edge. Where do they get the courage? How do they even learn/rehearse these moves?

And, unfortunately, I cannot cite a single performer by name. I didn’t notice until I got home that roles rotate among groups of dancers, and the cast for any specific performance can only be found in the theater’s lobby. The stand-out among the men for me was Eddie (Marc A. Heitzman or Lawrence Neuhauser) who dominates the second act with his descent into post-traumatic flash-back and self-destructive excess. He is required to perform feats of athleticism that, to my wimpy eyes, would be beyond Olympic decathletes, and to do them for two solid hours. Oh, to be that young and fit! Of the women, Ashlee Dupree, Casey Hill, and Addie Hoobler are listed as rotating Brenda and Judy, and, like I said above, the two playing the roles opening night looked very similar and seemed to dance in the same style. This could have been a shortcoming in the choreography – the dance styles seemed to be similar and not very character-specific -- but, more likely, my untrained eye just couldn’t discern the differences. Regardless, both dancers were supple and beautiful, spent most of their time “in the air,” and were easily the equal of the men with their feats of strength, ability, athleticism, and endurance.

I also have to give due credit to Matthew Friedman, the “Piano Man” who performed most of the music. Sounding much more nasal than Billy Joel and with a penchant for slurring some lyrics, he nevertheless captured the essence of the songs, and, by the third or fourth number, I forgot I wasn’t listening to Billy Joel himself.

The set was simple and the lights were flashy and appropriately dramatic when they needed to be, choreographed as tightly as the dancers. And, wonder of wonders, the sound was actually at a good rock-concert level without being painfully loud or distortion-prone under-equalized. This was one of the better shows technically I’ve seen at the Fox.

But, let’s be honest here, “Movin’ Out” is about the dance and it’s about the songs and it’s about the wonderful way two disparately similar artists’ work can inform each other, making a whole that is more than the some of the parts. Hearing Billy Joel’s song is always a pleasure. Seeing Twyla Tharp’s choreography is always a delight. Seeing them together is nothing less than sublime. It’s a vivid reminder that theatre can be a crucible of effect that will always be burning while the world is turning.

-- Brad Rudy (



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