My friend, Amy, called the other day and said she had extra tickets to the opening performance of the Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp musical/ballet Movin' Out at the National Theatre in downtown D.C. So, off I went to the theater last night.
Before I go any further with the playbill synopsis and my review of this musical/ballet, let me just say that I am a big Billy Joel fan. One of the very best concerts I've ever been to in my stunted concert going experience was a Billy Joel concert back in the late '80s. There was no opening act and the guy came out and sang his music for almost three hours. It was breathtaking.
I can't entirely say the same for Movin' Out, though.
Long Island in the '60s. The king and queen of the prom, Brenda and Eddie, are finished, while forever sweethearts James and Judy are ready for marriage. Their friend, Tony, is looking for that kind of love, and he finds it with Brenda, who has become her own woman. War takes the men away from hoe, leaving their loved ones to pick up the pieces. James loses his life in combat, while Tony and Eddie return home broken as Judy greives.
The vets try to cobble their lives back together. Tony can't seem to find a way to reconnect with Brenda, while Eddie can't connect with anyone. Spiraling into a lonely existence of drugs and self-loathing, Eddie takes a tour through a nightmare of his past, projecting Judy as his guide. By chance, he encounters Judy jogging in the park, and her forgiveness allows him finally set his life back on track. Brenda and Tony rediscover the love needed to heal their wounds. The friends reunite to discover they have all found their way back home.
Movin' Out is set on a stage that is devoid of props save a set of chain link fencing, a bank of lights, and a rig of scaffolding where the Movin' Out Band plays their accompaniment of Billy Joel hits while the ensemble of Twyla Tharp dancers cavort about the stage. Other props included a red sports car in the opening act and a snaking bar in the second act.
The production opens with an overture of "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" and immediately moves into our principals, Brenda and Eddie, splitting up to the music of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." At times, the opening sequence felt bland in its effort to set the stage. Brenda's break up with Eddie is punctuated by her mounting the scaffolding and throwing her promise ring down to Eddie as he and his friends dance around the stage.
The first act continues in a chunky, choppy sort of feel with James and Judy falling in love and marrying, Brenda making a comeback sans Eddie, and the three friends--Eddie, James, and Tony--going off to Vietnam. The scene where James dies in combat seemed like an attempt to mimic Ms. Saigon, but fell hopelessly flat and was poorly enacted using ballet as the medium. In the end, it was just loud, smoky, and obnoxious. The first act ends with an honor guard presenting a tri-folded flag to Judy.
At intermission, I noticed a number of people packed up their bags and left. I observed to Amy that I had expected dialogue, in addition to the great repertoire that is Billy Joel's portfolio and the groundbreaking choreography that is Twyla Tharp's. I wondered if I had missed something in my understanding of what this production would be.
Act II began with the return of Eddie and his veteran buddies from Vietnam, and their subsequent ostracism from society. Eddie adjusts poorly to being back in the world and tailspins into a period of drug abuse and sexual deviance. (Note: I'm not sure this was an appropriate musical for kids under 16. The 12 year old sitting in front of us really craned to be able to see the debauchery being depicted on stage. Very little was left to the imagination.)
Eventually, Eddie's nightmares and a chance encounter in the park with James' widow, Judy, turn his life around. Judy forgives him for coming back from the war without James and Eddie moves back into society a healed man. Throughout Eddie's struggles, Tony and Brenda have their ups and downs, but they also reconcile and rediscover love. The friends reunite and the musical closes with a reprise of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."
While Act I was less than laudable and Act II started out haltingly, by the time Eddie has his nightmares, the combination of Joel's music and Tharp's choreography redeemed itself and the production acquired a moving quality that left you energized and charged by the talent of Joel and Tharp.
As this was opening night, perhaps some of the choppiness can be explained away by the dancers and musicians getting their feet under them, so to speak. My exposure to ballet has been largely traditional (i.e. The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, et. al.) so contemporary dance/ballet is always a new experience. I was impressed by the men's ability to dance in tight jeans and Keds; no small feat, I'm sure.
The Movin' Out Band did a decent job of rendering Joel's music with the same verve Joel himself brings to his portfolio, but occasional notes fell flat or words were grossly mispronounced. The sound check should have been more precise as the microphone for the soloist was a bit high resulting in garbled singing at times.
Overall, it wasn't a horrible musical, but if you were expecting dialogue and less music video, this was a bit overrated and disappointing.
Out of five stars, I'd give it a three.
Movin' Out, Dec. 5 - 23 at the National Theatre, Music by Billy Joel, Choreography by Twyla Tharp.