How cool would it be to have a personal soundtrack of your own life, with a handful of musicians and a composer ready to convert any twist or turn of your existence into a song. Well, that's what Billy Joel has been doing for himself for the past few decades, enshrining moments of his personal journey in a long parade of chart-topping singles.
It was probably inevitable that the Joel playlist would be turned into a Broadway musical, and so it has: Movin' Out is now rocking the rafters at Playhouse Square's Palace Theatre. But this is no musical in the traditional sense, since there are few spoken lines. Rather, it features "bunk bed" staging, with a faux Billy Joel concert proceeding on the upper tier while below, a large cast of Energizer Bunny dancers spin out a simple story in a series of ballet and modern-dance scenarios. Though the plot is slight and there is some disconnect between the songs and choreography, the surging energy of the dancers and buoyant music make for a stellar evening's entertainment.
Tracing Joel's background, the five main characters begin as teenagers growing up on Long Island in the 1960s, with Eddie and Brenda as prom royalty who quickly break up, straight-arrow-steady couple James and Judy, and stud Tony, who bags Brenda on the rebound. Directed and choreographed by legendary dance master Twyla Tharp, the nonstop movement is more gratifying to look at than it is revealing of character. The three young men at least acquire one dimension each in the personality department -- Eddie's angry, James is innocent, Tony's hot -- but the women are left to passively respond within the classical stereotypes of slut or saint (prim Judy is even white-gloved at times).
The mildly successful first act begins with a surprisingly tepid and predictable character intro to the strains of "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," as each of the graduating seniors pose and flex as if gazing admiringly into full-length mirrors. But soon the reverie ends and the three guys are shipped off to Vietnam. At this point, a captivating double-duet dance ensues in which soldier Tony and his girl Brenda dance with their bar partners, thousands of miles apart, to the Joel ballad "She's Got a Way." This is one of the instances when Tharp doesn't try to retrofit her dance vocabulary to match the lyrics, and the result is synergistic and powerful. The same is true after James (nerdish Sean Maurice Kelly) is killed in battle and his body is returned to the grieving Judy (lovely and agile Julieta Gros) in "Elegy."
Overall, however, the first act can't hold a Zippo to the second, when the two surviving buddies come back home, with Eddie completely unraveling while Tony tries to patch things up with Brenda. Brendan King embodies Eddie with ferocious vitality; he's a 170-pound nerve ending with legs. Spiraling into drugs and debauchery, Eddie is riveting in his "Angry Young Man" scene and even manages to overcome a halfheartedly banal S&M interlude in "Captain Jack." Meanwhile, Tony (blond and cut Corbin Popp) and Brenda (Laurie Kanyok, a fetching dancer who packs a mean, body-wrapping leg whip) eventually work out their issues to the tunes of "Big Man on Mulberry Street" and "Shameless."
While all this is going on, the grand piano above them is pounded with style and precision by Michael Cavanaugh, who sings every one of the 20-some songs. Possessing a voice eerily similar to Billy Joel's (minus the original's gravelly lower range), Cavanaugh invests each lyric with passion and sensitivity. (This role is so demanding, Cavanaugh shares it with Matt Wilson at some performances.) The lead singers are backed by a fabulous rock orchestra that, at times, threatens to strip the gilt off the Palace's hallowed walls. This intensely muscular production is enhanced by Santo Loquasto's no-nonsense, heavy metal set and Donald Holder's in-your-face lights, which slice the stage into multiple playing areas.
However, the story would resonate more had Tharp spent more time developing the main characters' personal traits. By leaving them as symbols of youthful angst instead of clearly delineated individuals, their eventual happy reconciliation feels unearned and far too facile. Also, the costumes designed by Suzy Benzinger are strangely bland, with her off-white ensembles at the conclusion vanilla in more ways than one.
Glitches aside, Movin' Out is an inventive and involving exploration of one man's music and the ethos of his time. And it puts to shame brainless exercises such as Mamma Mia!, the pap-smear translation of ABBA pop tunes into faux musical comedy. When this production's piano man breaks into his curtain-call rendition of "Cleveland Rocks," you won't be at all ashamed to join the standing ovation.
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