Tharp's Dancers Kick 'Movin' Out' to a Higher Plane

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

The "movin' " in "Movin' Out" refers mostly to the spins, kicks and leaps in Twyla Tharp's turbocharged choreography that's set to some of Billy Joel's greatest hits. But at unexpected moments in this jolting rock-and-roll ballet, deeper emotions are tapped -- and movin' suddenly connotes something closer to affectin'.

As in the show's Act 1 finale, when the band is playing Joel's Coplandesque "Elegy (the Great Peconic)" and a young woman (Laura Feig) draped in black stands before us, clutching the folded flag that has been removed from the casket of her fiance, a Vietnam War casualty. It's an image that on most occasions strikes a mournful chord, but these days, with the toll mounting daily in another military quagmire, the scene bumps into the national mood in an especially illuminating way.

Few people, however, pick up tickets to "Movin' Out" -- which has returned to the National Theatre on the final leg of its long national tour -- to commune with wartime regret. Although the show trips the memory of the country's post-Vietnam hangover, it is more fundamentally a celebration of a fiery troubadour of the boomer generation.

Fortunately, in its incarnation at the National, "Movin' Out" still has fire. In two fast, muscular hours, Tharp and company convey much more than the bare outlines of a story of American brashness and innocence lost. And the storytelling is enhanced by some smashing dancers long associated with the show: David Gomez, Holly Cruikshank and Ron Todorowski.

Luxuriously leggy Cruikshank -- a worthy successor to Cyd Charisse -- and gravity-defying Todorowski play the central characters of Brenda and Eddie, whom Joel fans know as the "king and the queen of the prom" in his Long Island memory song, "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." Here, Tharp uses "Scenes" as a prologue to the tale of what happens to a circle of friends after the breakup of this golden blue-collar couple.

Newcomers to "Movin' Out" will find the synopsis in the program useful, although the story is not that hard to follow if one focuses on the dancing and does not hold Joel's lyrics too closely to account. The numbers weren't composed for the theater, of course, and so oftentimes they relate to what's happening on only a thematic level. The effect in songs such as "Uptown Girl" -- set here as a paean to Brenda's sexiness -- is more cinematic than theatrical. The music tends to underscore the plot rather than advance it.

This format seems to have worked far better with this composer than it did with Bob Dylan in Tharp's recent show, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which closed rapidly on Broadway this fall.

Much of the plot revolves around Eddie and his pals, Tony (Gomez) and James (Matthew Dibble), after they enlist and are shipped off to Vietnam. (Cast members change at some performances.) Brenda, now in love with Tony, and Judy (Feig), engaged to James, dance off their anxiety.

James is killed in combat and his death hovers over Act 2, when Eddie goes berserk, writhing in a drug stupor through "Captain Jack" and physicalizing his guilt in "Pressure." Todorowski's solos are little grenades of explosive, gymnastic energy. Gomez displays a winning suaveness in his partnering of the extraordinary Cruikshank, and Feig makes for an appealingly vulnerable Judy.

On a bridge above the stage, Darren Holden sits at a piano and, backed by an eight-piece band, skillfully delivers the tunes. A few of Joel's neoclassical pieces punctuate the pop interludes. It might feel more of a jumble if the dancing were not so exhilarating -- the most enthralling Broadway choreography on the contemporary stage.

Movin' Out, music and lyrics by Billy Joel. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. With Joshua Bergasse. Set, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Suzy Benziger; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Brian Ruggles and Peter J. Fitzgerald; orchestrations, Stuart Malina. About two hours. Through Dec. 23 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Call 800-447-7400 or visit

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