The man seated behind me in the Richard Rodgers Theatre was a little confused. "Billy Joel is in this, right?" he whispered to his date as the house lights dimmed.
The answer to his question, in point of fact, was a definitive no and an emphatic yes. No, Joel does not appear in "Movin' Out," Twyla Tharp's exhilarating new rock-and-roll ballet. And yes, absolutely, Joel is authentically represented in every fevered jete and pounding piano riff of this brisk and surprisingly touching show based on Joel's music, a production that heralds the news that breath-stopping choreography is once again thriving on Broadway.
Joel's jukebox of hit songs, from "The Stranger" to "We Didn't Start the Fire," is not a natural foundation for a musical; on the whole, the songs are mood rather than character pieces. Yet they provide exactly the right motif for the wrenching story, set in the '60s, that Tharp so imaginatively knits together (even if there are gaps in the storytelling here and there).
And in the effort to conjure a period through music, hers is a far more compelling technique than is employed in sentimental efforts like, for instance, the NBC dramatic series "American Dreams." Nostalgia is not what Tharp is after. She summons instead the wired, incendiary air of an epoch spinning out of control.
Having found a core group of dancers with the interpretive and athletic prowess for this tricky assignment, Tharp takes the narrative device of the Tony-winning dance play "Contact" -- using pop songs as the basis of a dance musical that's performed without dialogue -- and refines it further. Unlike "Contact," "Movin' Out" has live music, in the form of a 10-piece band suspended over the stage on a hydraulic platform, a kind of concert in the clouds. The featured performer is a piano man, the accomplished Michael Cavanaugh, a Joel sound-alike who sings the bulk of the score accompanied by guitar, drums, sax and brass. (Interspersed are recordings of a few of Joel's lesser-known -- and less interesting -- works in a classical vein.)
Beneath the platform, the cadre of dancers shimmies, karate-kicks and even moonwalks through Tharp's story, which is inspired largely by Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." That song, about young heartbreak on Long Island, supplies the show with its leading characters: Brenda (Elizabeth Parkinson) and Eddie (John Selya). Their breakup sets in motion events that bring together their friends Tony (Keith Roberts), Judy (Ashley Tuttle) and James (Benjamin G. Bowman) for a series of romantic entanglements, but the central focus remains on the extraordinary Selya, whose Eddie progresses from aimless roustabout to disaffected Army vet to self-assured grown-up.
The production's eclectic, high-energy style is a catalogue of modern movement, the kinds of steps you see everywhere, from the stage of a modern dance company to reruns of the '60s variety show "Hullabaloo." In an early sequence, Tharp even parodies the famous music video of "Uptown Girl," assigning Parkinson the role of the strutting model that Joel's then-future, now-former wife, Christie Brinkley, played in the video.
The most powerful portion of the show unfolds in a series of vignettes in Vietnam, where Eddie, Tony and James are sent together to serve in a frontline unit. Their devastating experiences in the war, and the aftershocks that propel some of them into dissolute lives back home, are rendered in a moving sequence of songs, including "Captain Jack," "Innocent Man" and "Pressure." It is around this last number that Tharp builds the evening's climax -- a piece that might be labeled a flashback ballet.
In a dream, Eddie relives the horror of the war, conjured with the help of Donald Holder's evocative lighting. A Southeast Asian bar girl gyrates in a corner of the stage as a fallen comrade of Eddie's materializes to dance beside him. It's a stunning effect: Onstage, we get the embodiment of Eddie's grief.
For a Broadway audience, Selya (a member of Tharp's New York company, Twyla Tharp Dance) is the discovery here; his presence is reminiscent of Gene Kelly's. It's a masculine performance, never lapsing into balletic loveliness. Roberts is terrific as a friend with not a serious bone in his body, and Tuttle is equally good as a young woman introduced prematurely to widowhood.
At times, "Movin' Out" does stray a bit from complete coherence, and the episodic quality of a show constructed from a record playlist involves too many stops and starts. Yet Tharp has done an impressive job of matching a physical language to the driving rhythms and musical personality of a pop composer. It's not just a dance up there on the stage but a provocative moment in time.
Movin' Out. Music and lyrics by Billy Joel. Directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. With Scott Wise. Sets, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Suzy Benzinger; lighting, Donald Holder. Approximately two hours. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., New York. Call 212-307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.