No one in Movin' Out, the Twyla Tharp musical based on Billy Joel songs, relaxes for a second. Smiles are fixed, staying brightly in place until the time comes for a bit of soulful torment. The dancing is athletic, hard-driven and relentlessly slick. They don't hold anything back, but it's hard to believe in it.
In a dance career that stretches from postmodern dance in 1960s New York lofts to work with the ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tharp has regularly taken in pop music and Broadway. The singer-songwriter Joel seems a middle-of-the-road choice by Tharp's standards, but she builds her show around the American detail of his songs, his evocations of uptown girls and local restaurants.
Movin' Out, which had its Broadway premiere in 2002, is the story of a group of friends from 1960s smalltown America. The three men all fight in Vietnam, where one is killed. The other two have to readjust to life at home, working towards the inevitable feelgood ending.
This is a Broadway ballet. The characters are played by dancers, who don't speak or sing. Instead, Joel's songs, including the hits "Uptown Girl" and "Just the Way You Are", are pieced together to make the storyline. Barked out by the Fame Academy finalist James Fox, lyrics and melodic lines are blurred.
The plot leads Tharp into some very silly scenes. Chorus-boy soldiers find that war is hell in the Vietnam sequence. One dies in combat, prompting his loyal girlfriend to make an unexpected appearance on the battlefield, still wearing her neat white gloves.
Tharp's dancers can't really act. That wouldn't matter if her choreography told the story for them. But her dances here are music-theatre clichés, plus the odd ballet convention. In duet after duet, women are bent back by their partners, kicking their legs or being thrown in the air.
It does look spectacular. The three leads, all from the Broadway production, are tirelessly gymnastic. As Brenda and Tony, who rebel against the small town then end up in love, Holly Cruikshank and David Gomez strut and pose glossily. As Eddie, the raging Vietnam veteran, Ron Todorowski hurls himself into repeated jumps and turns, flips from handstand to handstand. He never flags, but there's no spontaneity.
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