Movin' Out, Apollo Victoria, London

Tharp puts Joel's uptown girls on the wrong foot
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The Independent Culture

No one in Movin' Out, the Twyla Tharp musical, based on Billy Joel songs, relaxes for a second. Smiles are fixed, staying plastered on faces 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 a second of it.

In a dance career that stretches from 1960s postmodern dance to work with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tharp has regularly taken in pop music and Broadway.

Singer-songwriter Billy 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. You know the images, which are diner Americana. Tharp and Joel lived through this era but their account of it looks second-hand.

This is a Broadway ballet: characters dance, but they don't speak or sing. Instead, Joel's songs, including hits "Uptown Girl" and "Tell Her About It", are pieced together to make a storyline. Barked out by Fame Academy finalist James Fox, lyrics and melodic lines are blurred. The songs, thumped out by a 10-piece band, don't give Tharp much rhythmic variety.

The plot leads her into some very silly scenes. Chorus-boy soldiers discover that war is hell in the Vietnam scene. When one dies, his loyal girlfriend makes an unexpected appearance on the battlefield, still wearing her neat white gloves. But she's changed her strappy sandals for pointe shoes, a sure sign of Serious Emotion.

Santo Loquasto's designs do most of the characterisation: Tharp's dancers can't act. That wouldn't matter if her choreography told the story for them. But her dances here are music-theatre cliches, 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. Tharp has worked this vein before, but she's forgotten how to make it juicy, prodding the dancers into harsh, give-'em-all-you've-got phrasing. Dancing almost never looks fun in this show.

It does look spectacular. The three leads, all from the Broadway production, are tirelessly gymnastic. As Brenda and Tony, the two "independent" characters, 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. For every emotion, Tharp gives him one big step and leaves him to repeat it to what must be the point of exhaustion. He never flags, but there's no spontaneity.