note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Susan Daniels
(This article was originally printed in the South End News.)
Boston was treated to the royalty of contemporary dance and pop music last week when “Movin’ Out,” Twyla Tharp’s eye-popping choreography to 24 Billy Joel hits, exploded onto the Shubert Theatre in a performance destined for the record books. Not only was the trailblazing choreographer very present during the multiple curtain calls for her cast, but America’s idolized rock ‘n roller created quite a frenzy as he walked down the aisle to his seventh row seat -- all smiles and hand waving to the cheering crowd -- just moments before the opening scene.
Two hours later, in an unrehearsed, impromptu mini-concert, Joel ascended the twenty foot high platform constructed for the on-stage, ten man rock band and graciously led them through a two song romp, supported by the wildly cheering, clapping, screaming members of the audience.
Even the highly-trained dancers got into the groove: Like a Pied Piper of showmanship, Joel enticed the 16 cast members back onto the stage, after their supposive, final bow, with his crowd-pleasing chords and lyrics. As the dancers boogied, shimmied and bumped hips -- also unrehearsed and delightful in its readily accessible and all too ordinary steps -- they mirrored the happy hysteria happening throughout the theater. It was an evening reminiscent of the Woodstock generation.
Which was precisely Tharp’s starting point. In her new book, Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit, she writes: “In the summer of 2000 I had an idea: to make a Broadway musical, all dancing, to the songs of Billy Joel. I have always believed in Billy’s music. I've been listening to his songs since he started recording. I also felt in my bones that he wrote great dancing music. At the same time, I had just started a new company of six marvelous dancers. So good, in fact, that I was dying to showcase them in something big and ambitious. A two-hour dance extravaganza to all the hits of a major American pop idol fit the bill.”
Though they had never met, Tharp telephoned Joel and invited him him to her studio to watch a video she had choreographed to several of his hits. Visibly moved as the characters in his songs came to life through dance, Joel agreed, on the spot, to Twyla’s request: complete and unfettered access to all of his music.
“Moving’ Out,” Tharp’s paean to pop culture and the baby boomer generation, depicts the era of American history from the 1970s to 90s through five main characters culled from Joel’s lyrics: Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” Tony and Sergeant O’Leary from “Movin’ Out,” Judy from “Why, Judy, Why,” and James from “James.” Told completely through dance -- Yes, there is no dialogue -- the quirky choreographer has, once again, pulled the rug from under the dance world by meshing movement and music into a theatrical tour de force.
The story, conveyed by the choreography more than any other element in the show, is a portrait of a group of working class, lifelong friends from suburban Long Island, who painfully come of age through war, drugs and divorce.
Though Tharp’s original six dancers are not part of the touring company, it’s of no consequence. Instead, Tharp has drawn two separate, but equal, casts from primarily the ballet world and has molded this splendid entourage into a bravura dancing machine. Ron Todorowski as Eddie, Holly Cruikshank as Brenda (last scene in Boston as the Girl in the Yellow Dress in “Contact,” the other dance-driven musical), David Gomez as Tony, Julieta Gros as Judy, and Matthew Dibble as James led a power-packed ensemble on press night in which any hyperbolic description actually might be construed as an understatement.
Likewise, Darren Holden as the lead vocalist -- singing and playing the piano in the easy familiarity of Joel’s style -- crooned and roared, with the authentic-sounding rock band matching him note for note -- at times, with decibel-breaking volume. Indubitably, the lyrics were drowned out through much of the show, an unfortunate toll to pay for such a rich stable of Joel’s stories and characters.
Though it was the rocker’s contribution that had the audience repeatedly leaping from their seats, it is still Tharp’s show. She conceived, choreographed and directed the spectacle of sensational dancing, much of it reflective of her earliest days as a choreographer. Her style has always had a look of improvisation, composed of small, quick, casual-looking motions; and in various scenes throughout the show, she incorporates these same elements. What’s even more eye-catching is watching these classically trained dancers move through Tharp’s breakneck choreography without any real stops. As the musicians go from one song into another, so do the dancers. There are few, if any, poses for the audience to feast upon, no Nureyev-like end-stops for the dancers' to say, “Hey, look what I just did!”
The changes in speed, energy and direction are also present, astonishing the audience with a liberal quantity and quality of jumps, leaps, spins, twirls and aerial splits.
As always, her continuous flow of motion is astounding: one combination of movement seemingly leads effortlessly into the next. With its pulsating drive, a character trait or a plot twist emerges from her cutting edge style that has been synonymous with Tharp’s name for four decades.
At 61, Tharp’s vision is as radical now as it was in the early days. Silver-haired, still outspoken, and as committed as ever to her work, with this dance extravaganza she has elevated musical theater into a genre that is impossible to pigeon hole. Though she has created dances for Baryshnikov, American Ballet Theater, and New York City Ballet, among other notables, the Tony award-winning show breaks new ground, and may be the harbinger, along with “Contact,” of more dance-driven ‘musicals.’
As catchy as her name, “Movin’ Out” creates an indelible impression by the choreographer with the unforgettable style.
“Movin’ Out,” through 4/10.
Colonial Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets $21 to $88; For tickets, call Telecharge at 800-447-7400 or visit telecharge.com.