'Movin' Out' brings dance drama to B'way

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 14, 2002 at 12:18 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- Choreographer Susan Stroman led the way toward a new form of entertainment with three dance playlets under the title of "Contact" at Lincoln Center last season, and now the idea has been brought to fruition with a full evening Broadway dance drama, "Movin' Out," choreographed by Twyla Tharp.

The production danced to the music of Billy Joel at the Richard Rodgers Theater is nothing less than sensational, a dynamic display of virtuoso ballet dancing with a modern edge by 27 wonderful dancers, many of them with associations to American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, and Joffrey Ballet.

It's the best dance show on Broadway since "Fosse," which was a dance review of exceptional appeal. "Movin' Out" is a full-fledged drama with a plot about coming of age in the Vietnam War era. There is no dialogue, only the words of Billy Joel's pop classics sung with intense feeling by Michael Cavanaugh as he leads an onstage 10-piece band from the keyboard.

Tharp's densely textured dance style, involving endless spiraling, semaphoric arm movements, daring lifts, and breathless slides, has never been used to better advantage. This is her best and most vibrant work of choreography set to contemporary music since she used the Beach Boys' numbers for the Joffrey company's "Deuce Coupe" a generation ago.

If "Movin' Out" isn't a leading contender for the Tony Award in the special entertainment category for the current season, there is no justice on Broadway. And they may have to create a special Tony for the star of the show, John Selya, a strapping former American Ballet Theater dancer who is now with Twyla Tharp Dance. He's a great actor as well as well as a terrifically athletic and aesthetic dancer.

Tharp has chosen 26 Billy Joel songs that fit her story of five friends in the 1960s and has excluded the composer's signature work, "Piano Man," because it doesn't. But most of the favorites get an airing including "Uptown Girl," "This Night," "She's Got a Way," "Big Shot," "Goodnight Saigon," "Shameless," "River of Dreams," and "I've Loved These Days."

Selya goes from prom king at his Long Island high school, with sexy Elizabeth Parkinson dancing the role of his queen, to a green volunteer for service with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Two of his buddies go to Nam with him -- a rival for Parkinson's affections, danced by Keith Roberts, and Benjamin Bowman, who is killed in a realistically staged battle scene.

Selya and Roberts survive the Vietnam conflict in a traumatized state and return home. As veterans of an unpopular war, they have a difficult time picking up their lives and making contact with anyone including Parkinson. Selya reaches out to narcotics and a libidinous life style with another girl, danced by Ashley Tuttle, who had been his slain buddy's fiancée.

Tharp provides her story with a happily shimmering ending that rather unconvincingly evolves from Selya's return to a life as normal as a healthy jog in the park with Tuttle as his companion. Roberts and Parkinson also are reconciled, and both couples can live the good life, apparently feeling absolved from guilt about the war for reasons expressed in the Billy Joel song, "We Didn't Start the Fire."

It may sound simplistic but on stage it makes for an action-packed, gripping evening of entertainment that takes the audience on one long exciting crescendo of emotion.

Roberts, a stage Adonis who danced the Swan in the Broadway "Swan Lake" several seasons ago, is as much a bravura dancer as Selya and an actor just as deeply involved in his role. Parkinson, a star of "Fosse," and Tuttle are the essence of grace in demanding roles. Other fine performances are turned in by Benjamin Bowman, the buddy who loses his life, and Scott Wise, who plays a drill sergeant and is assistant choreographer for the show.

Santo Loquasto's mostly bare, all-purpose set can serve as a battlefield or a bar thanks to some of the most fantastic lighting ever devised for a Broadway show, designed by Donald Holder. Suzy Benzinger has contributed costumes of the '60s, some with punk overtones, and Stuart Malina has masterminded additional musical arrangements and orchestrations and the musical continuity.

After the show ends with a joyful high school class reunion, there is an exhilarating encore, "New York State of Mind," that give the audience a chance to cheer and applaud Cavanaugh, the singer-pianist who only gets the spotlight occasionally during the show. He is just as much one of the stars as anyone in the cast and has a voice that makes him the perfect stand-in for Billy Joel.

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