Conceived, Choreographed & Directed by Twyla Tharp
Music and Lyrics by Billy Joel
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
It was perhaps fitting that I saw the new Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel musical “Movin’ Out” at the Schubert Theater in Chicago, because it is where I saw, about twenty years ago, “Beatlemania,” which most closely approximates what “Movin’ Out” is. Both shows feature performers singing the hit songs of another artist while a variety of visuals are played out. In the case of “Beatlemania,” slide shows, while “Movin’ Out” had interpretive dance.
The musical opens with “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” which results in a divorce for Brenda (Elizabeth Perkins) and Eddie (John Selya), much less amicable on stage than in the song. The first act continues to show the carefree days of the Sixties through the eyes of Eddie and his best friend, James (Benjamin G. Bowman). James is in love with Judy (Meg Paul, filling in for Ashley Tuttle), and their life appears to be all mapped out. Meanwhile, James’s younger brother, Tony (“Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out)”) hooks up with the restyled Brenda, who has moved uptown since her divorce. Following a humorous football dance sequence by the three men, they are drafted and sent to Viet Nam. The Vietnamese battle scenes are extremely effective and are interspersed with scenes from back home. Tony, in a Vietnamese bar, tries to fend off a prostitute while thinking about his idealized version of Brenda, who is shown in less than idealized circumstances back in the United States, a strong indication of the turn the musical will take in the second act.
The second act shows Eddie descending into the demimonde of the Seventies. Brenda, addled by drugs and making her living as an erotic dancer, happens upon the now home and homeless Tony, who is living on the streets with other veterans. They rekindle their romance and all three characters allow themselves to be swallowed up by the despair of broken dreams. Eventually, a chance meeting with Judy while she is jogging in the park gives Eddie the opportunity for redemption. Unfortunately, this appears as a sort of deus ex machina, which could easily have been avoided by an additional musical number. This jump points out the weakness of the overall plot. Instead of watching the play as a completely plotted story, I think it works best as a series of vignettes revolving around recurring characters. On occasion earlier vignettes influence the manner in which songs and actions of later numbers are seen.
Perkins was amazingly flexible and did things which made you think of a rag doll being thrown around. The men performed well, but the actions required of them did not appear to be particularly strenuous. While I may be wrong (and almost certainly am, being the sort of person who goes to ballet to enjoy the music), it seemed that a reasonably capable actor could have been trained to do the dance moves required without necessarily being a trained dancer.
All of the music is performed by a live band, with Michael Cavanaugh on piano and lead vocals. Cavanaugh’s voice is exceptionally reminiscent of Joel’s voice, and there are times when the songs almost seem like they could be the Joel recordings. Only “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is significantly (but effectively) altered for the show, which also includes several pieces from Joel’s recent piano music album, “Fantasies and Delusions.” Cavanaugh is backed by a full band which performs well, especially John Scarpulla, who performs double duty on both percussion and lead saxophone.
While I would recommend seeing it as an interesting experience (and I would actually like to see it a second time to see if the overarching story works any better), I would only do so with a caveat. Certain sections in the second act are for a mature audience. In one scene, Elaine (my wife) insists she saw one of the female dancers flashing the audience, although I missed it, as did a couple of friends who saw the show a couple of days after we did. Knowledge of Joel’s music is a great help and will add to the enjoyment (and epiphany) of the various songs.