Twyla Tharp, choreographer of more than 125 dances for stage and screen (including 1981’s collaboration with David Byrne on The Catherine Wheel and director Milos Forman on the film version of Hair in 1978) has brought her Tony-award-winning musical Movin’ Out to Detroit. Her muscular, acrobatic, torso-twirlin’ prances have sent dancers flying through an amazing spectrum of American music. She’s won accolades and a roomful of awards for employing a mind-blowing array of disparate musical inspiration; from the Beach Boys to Philip Glass to Sinatra.
Now she turns her attention to Billy Joel, mining every sugary drop from the pop-meister’s mile-long catalog and throwing her dancers around 26 of Mr. Hitmaker’s tunes. It’s a strange marriage, where the oft-proven genius of Tharp attacks with deep artistic flourish a body of music that could arguably be described as pedestrian, snappy and light, even when it’s trying hard not to be.
Twyla fashions a tale of Vietnam-era America and how that war affects five characters found within Joel’s well-known tunes. The main couple, Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” are brought to life, and they have Tony from “Movin’ Out” and Judy from “Why, Judy Why” and James from (you guessed it!) “James” to keep them company. Their stories play out on a stage set up with metal grating and lights that blast the audience as much as they spotlight the dancers and the piano-led rock band that hangs over them from on high. The rest of the stage is a wide-open landscape, where Tharp masterfully moves cheerleaders, soldiers, a go-go bar, and a movable, camouflaged hill which elegantly simulates the bloody setting where the three men in the story lose their innocence, and one loses his life.
The opening of the show is a dance of young love against a backdrop of ’50s Americana and the strains of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” The dancers flit about with abandon and raw sexual energy as they chase each other around a car that Eddie and his pals can’t seem to get started. They bounce into each other for a hard, quick embrace and then separate. Rebellious and moody, Eddie is easily distracted by a group of giggling and leggy cheerleaders, sending Brenda to the band’s aerie to seduce the piano player. James and Judy do not stray too far from each other. These are lovers who probably will get married and have four kids and move out to the burbs one day.
Inevitably, soldiers make sporadic appearances behind the main players, and war comes to Joel-ville: an opportunity for Tharp to haul out the “harder” Billy Joel songlist and put her dancers through the ballet-tinged pantomime of drug addiction, disillusionment and loss.
The second act sees Eddie on the streets, begging and stealing with a group of other war-torn vets who writhe and dart to Joel’s “Invention in C Minor.” The lights and snake-like movement of the dancers in this sequence showcase why Tharp gets so much attention. Each dancer has a story, but it’s an unspoken one. They tell their tale not with tongues, but with hands and arms and rumps, pumping and revealing themselves with muscle and grace. It is easy to forget when you’re swept away with all the precise physical maneuvering that Tharp has invested each one of her dancers with motive and thought and a sweaty pathos that drives them back and forth across the stage.
The characters eventually make it back to one another. After his nightmare flashback to ’Nam, Eddie gets over his guilt while the melancholic anthem “Goodnight Saigon” plays. By the end of the show, all of the hot pants and wife-beaters and tight jeans and leathers have been retired and in their place are the bland beige Sansa-belt slacks and conservative skirts of the ’70s. Exactly what many wore when listening to these songs for the first time.
That’s why it seems so strange, this marriage of dance and Billy Joel. On the one hand, it basically proves that Tharp could create a dance out of any music plopped in her lap. She mined every single thing she could out of Joel’s music, and did it with beauty and style. But I had to listen to 26 Billy Joel tunes from a somewhat generic and soulless cover band to see all that incredible dancing artistry. If you like Billy Joel, you’ll get goose bumps watching her turn his mild pop into dancing gold. But if your tastes run differently, you’ll just have to wait for her to tackle Devo or Gomez or maybe Johnny Cash. Now that would be interesting.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.