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By: Lucia Mauro
A new - and disturbing - trend has hit the commercial stage: an extended dance concert, anchored by existing pop songs, parading as a flashy form of musical theater. A painstakingly retrofitted story usually accompanies the fancy footwork. For example, in Susan Stroman's "Contact," the pretentious through-line for its signature "Girl In The Yellow Dress" segment has a burnt-out, suicidal ad exec searching for love and purpose. One can go so far as to loosely count "Mamma Mia!" among these kitschy dance-theater hybrids with hyperventilating pop appeal (although the ABBA tunes superseded the dance elements).
The result, in my opinion, is a clumsy and woeful lack of originality. Now Chicago audiences are the first to view the latest of this contrived movement-musical ilk: "Movin' Out" - conceived, choreographed and directed by modern-dance innovator Twyla Tharp. This skimpy and redundant dance showcase of entwined relationships set to Billy Joel music may count as one of the most bland and ill-developed of this rising genre.
All the faux-tough male posturing and no-dimensional women (who fall into two categories: virgin and whore) would lead one to believe "Movin' Out" was created by a man – not a leading American female choreographer known for her shrewd, tenacious and piquantly intelligent approach to her artistic vision. This show doesn't even qualify as an invigorating staged music video. In fact, a "Greatest Hits" music video of Joel's catchy but complexly crafted songs by commercially trained choreographers, like Paula Abdul and Mia Michaels, would certainly be more energizing - and entertaining.
Here Tharp slaps a trite story line on Joel’s already rich and evocative musical vignettes of life. But her interpretations - chronicling three men and two women as they encounter great social change from 1967 to 1987 - merely slink, shimmy, twirl and punch the air with vague recollections of "West Side Story," "Grease," and "Dirty Dancing." Yet Tharp seems to be unaware of both the rudimentary nature of her choreography and the sub-cliched plot.
What should have been a 20 to 30-minute repertory piece highlighting Joel's meteor-like melodies and hard-hitting but tender raconteur style (similar to Tharp’s "Nine Sinatra Songs") has mushroomed into a stilted relationship odyssey encompassing three decades - only to reduce these eras to big cars, drugs, Vietnam and society’s dismissive treatment of Vietnam vets. Billy Joel fans, who will no doubt clamor to "Movin' On," are sure to feel cheated. Pop-music and modern-classical dance fans don’t necessarily cross over. Sadly, both camps will be disappointed.
The show consists of an over-amplified onslaught by a live cover band pounding out hits, like "Uptown Girl" and "I Go to Extremes," while classically trained dancers fling, lunge and contort themselves across a script-less plot so hokey that it’s barely an outline for a low-budget TV movie-of-the-week. Most baffling, Tharp gets wedged into the literalness of the lyrics, yet her movement vocabulary and danced story runs counter to vocalist-pianist Michael Cavanaugh’s quite astonishing recreations of Joel’s harsh and harmonious microcosms of love and loss.
"Movin' Out," set in a working-class neighborhood in Hicksville, Long Island, vaguely centers on Eddie (a technically adept but emotionally flat John Selya) - distinguished only by his pseudo-macho greaser mannerisms and black leather jacket. His best friend is Tony (the exquisite Keith Roberts decked out in a curly blonde wig like the Prom King in "Carrie") - a grocery-store clerk and general stud. The third guy turns out to be the squeaky-clean James (Benjamin G. Bowman), recently engaged to his white-gloved sweetheart Judy.
Conflict brews when Eddie loses his sexy and troubled wife Brenda to Tony. Early scenes in which a knock-kneed female ensemble member in dorky glasses drools over Tony are not only stupid and offensive - they’re pointless and go nowhere.
Suddenly, the three guys march off to Vietnam and - lo and behold! - James gets killed in action (due mainly to Eddie's irresponsible behavior). Judy then becomes a recurring stock figure of the grieving war widow; Tony and Eddie feud; and both men suffer from post-war trauma. Tony and Brenda take drugs and fight; Eddie wallows in depraved behavior (including one abysmally laughable bondage-sex club sequence). A deux ex machina in the form of James' angelic spirit (clad in a jogging suit) unites all these tortured figures into a bright and hopeful future.
This scant and implausible narrative is most evident in the blunt titles of each scene: "Tony and Brenda Get Together"; "Eddie Knows"; "Off To War"; "Coming Home"; "Eddie Rages," "Eddie Gets High;" and so on. Oddly, though, drugs and war seem to be glamorized for rugged and raunchy dramatic effect. Tharp has no intention of delving into the complexities of these ever-relevant issues. And the outstanding dancers (including Chicago’s own Ron De Jesus, longtime ensemble member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) are given nothing more compelling or challenging to do than bump and grind, push each other around and writhe through imaginary drug trips.
The women (Nicole Kidman-look-a-like Elizabeth Parkinson as Brenda and ballerina Ashley Tuttle as the revered Judy) don’t get anymore cardboard than these. To the strains of "She's Got a Way," a parallel scene posits Brenda as a lap dancer in a Long Island dive bar being pawed by a drunken businessman, and Tony giving in to a Vietnamese prostitute at a Saigon bar. More hooker segments follow, quickly trailed by the "halo" scenes featuring the immaculate Judy and her various grief and/or drug-induced doppelgangers conjured by Eddie (almost as if Judy, not James, has died).
This tiresome, insincere affair makes me wonder about the future of original music theater. Billy Joel, who attended opening night, must regret having his name not only associated with – but also the main draw of - what appears to be a whimsical vanity production for Twyla Tharp. Audiences should stay home and pop in their Billy Joel CDs - at least they know they won’t be disappointed.
"Cavanaugh Tries Theater, But It's Still Rock and Roll"
By: Misha Davenport
(August 4th, 2002)
It's lunchtime at the Grillroom and Michael Cavanaugh is in a bit of a rush. On a short break from rehearsals of "Movin' Out," he's just crossed the street from the Shubert Theatre, where he has been appearing six times a week, performing selected works by Billy Joel. Wearing a black shirt and pants, he shuffles into the booth.
The last thing he wants to talk about is exactly what is on everyone's mind - the negative reviews "Movin' Out" received after it opened July 19th, 2002.
"I don't want to go there. I don't read reviews or talk about them," Cavanaugh says. "What I will say is the mood of the company is still pretty high and tickets are still selling pretty well in New York."
He adds, "I know at the end of every show we've done, we've had screaming people giving us a standing ovation, and that's a great feeling."
Polite and down to earth, he seems oblivious to the inevitable onslaught of media attention that comes from appearing in a Broadway-bound show, including critics' reviews. Though he comes across as a Midwestern guy in his 20s getting his first big break, the married father of one son is still savvy enough not to reveal his age. With the recording industry's youth-oriented obsession, it's hard to blame the guy. If you were working toward securing a record contract, you'd be less than forthcoming about your age, too.
The world of Broadway is admittedly different from what Cavanaugh is used to. Not to say he's a stranger to performing. He isn't. Still, Vegas showrooms and traditional theaters don't have a lot in common. Cavanaugh admits to being a bit green when it comes to musicals.
"I didn't know what to expect. I'm new to theater. I've been a rock and roll guy all my life," he says.
You'd probably expect nothing less from a musician whose previous exposure to musical theater included more traditional fare such as "42nd Street" and "The King and I" and not a single rock musical.
"I've never seen 'Tommy' or 'Mama Mia!' So I don't know much about it. I know how to perform the way I perform and fortunately, that's what they were looking for."
There's a lot riding on his performance in particular. With no other dialogue spoken during the show other than Joel's lyrics, Cavanaugh is essentially the narrator of the piece. He says he focuses on diction and not much else.
"I was nervous the first couple of previews," he says. "Not about my abilities; I was worried I'd lose focus. If I let it flow out naturally, I'm fine. If I try to get two verses ahead of myself, I'm a goner."
It's a show Cavanaugh says he has been preparing for all his life. As a boy growing up in Cleveland, he wanted to play drums. His parents bought a piano instead and at the age of 7½ he had learned his first song by ear. It was Joel's "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me."
"I was a terrible student. I'd come to a piano lesson and they'd expect me to play Beethoven, and I hadn't worked on it at all because I'd been playing rock and roll instead," Cavanaugh says.
The years of practicing the Beatles and not Beethoven have paid off. Much of the praise for the show - from audiences and critics alike - have been directed toward Cavanaugh, who in the course of 20 or so songs manages to embody in his performances all of the voice and emotion of Joel.
"I try to approach each song as Billy would," Cavanaugh says. "I don't impersonate him. I try to get at his point of view in the song, his attitude."
Still, he shies away from anything that might put more focus on him than on the rest of the cast. "I'm just a part of this whole thing, but I appreciate [the good reviews]."
As for what changes lie in store for the musical before it reaches New York, Cavanaugh again was tight-lipped. As far as he knows, the show is frozen and any changes won't necessarily impact him.
"I think the show is smart and intelligent," he says. "For [choreographer and director] Twyla [Tharp] to take a bunch of songs that weren't written for a one purpose and turn them into one purpose is amazing. I can't think of anything that should change."
Billy Joel Close To Movin' In To Manhattan
(August 12th, 2002)
Looks like Billy Joel will be spending a lot more time in Manhattan this autumn. He's just about to sign a contract on a three-bedroom condominium on a high floor in one of those glossy Trump highrises on Third Avenue. It's a location that surprises some people since its so mundane, yet luxurious. Sources say that Mr. Joel bought the apartment specifically as a nest for his daughter, Alexa, who will graduate from the Ross School in East Hampton in another year and presumably head for New York. Mr. Joel has always said that he was living in the Hamptons primarily to be near Alexa, who lives in Southampton with her mother, Christie Brinkley. Mr. Joel's new apartment will not necessitate board approval, since it's a condominium.
The local hero and recording star recently added to his Hamptons collection of homes by buying a $14 million cottage overlooking the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, not far from the house he sold to Jerry Seinfeld for $34 million. Industry sources say Mr. Joel bought the New York apartment so he could spend time with Alexa, who has inherited her father's prodigious musical talents, both as a composer and as a singer...
By: Richard Johnson
(August 21st, 2002)
Billy Joel won’t be movin’ in to the three-bedroom condo he wanted in a top floor of a Trump high-rise on Third Avenue. The "Piano Man" got outbid by Jeffrey Fine, a vice chairman of UBS and owner of Manhattan hotspot Bungalow 8, who plunked down about $6.8 million. Joel wanted the apartment as a future nest for daughter Alexa, who is graduating from the Ross School in East Hampton and is likely heading to the city. "I love Billy but somebody came in with a better price," Donald Trump shrugged to "Page Six."
"Tharp Reshapes 'Movin' Out' Before It Goes to Broadway"
By: Michael Phillips
(August 22nd, 2002)
"It's time to change our ways," wrote Billy Joel in the song "I've Loved These Days," heard late in the New York-bound musical "Movin' Out."
Good advice, for any show in the throes of an out-of-town tryout.
Director/choreographer Twyla Tharp has taken that Joel lyric to heart. The Chicago Shubert Theatre engagement of "Movin' Out" opened to mixed reviews July 19th, 2002 following several weeks of previews. Since then, Tharp and company have gone back to rework the show, which features Tharp's choreography set to songs from the Joel canon.
For weeks Tharp's ensemble performed the old show at night while rehearsing the revisions during the day, in classic tryout tradition. The first round of changes went into the August 13th, 2002 performance. New versions of various scenes were added through Tuesday's performance.
"It's not frozen," Tharp said, "but it's getting to be JELL-O. There won't be any more changes in Chicago." The local run ends September 1st, 2002.
Judging from Tuesday's performance, Tharp's extensive revisions - focusing on Act 1 and its problems of narrative clarity - have made for a clearer, more satisfying show. Tharp focuses more directly on her primary characters and their travails in Vietnam and back home in America, across 20 years and three decades.
The improvements in the formerly chaotic introductory sequence, set to "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," are striking. Now audiences know who the key players are, without a scorecard. The choreography is less tied to the lyrics of each Joel song, and the kinetic payoffs of Act 2, fueled by "Prelude/Angry Young Man" and "Only The Good Die Young," are easier to enjoy.
"The guiding principle," Tharp said, "was this: If it's confusing, cut it out." In many sequences, she said, "We simply had too many elements. I guess the word is 'overload.'"
After the reworked opening sequence, "Movin' Out" no longer segues into "I Go To Extremes," which was danced by John Selya and Elizabeth Parkinson. That number has been cut. The title number, originally featuring Keith Roberts and members of the female corps, now features the male principals.
When the action shifts to Vietnam ("We Didn't Start The Fire"), the character of Eddie is no longer partly responsible for the death of James. The "Fire" segment formerly consisting of Brenda's marijuana-induced hallucination is now far less silly and focuses on the other principal females as well. Overall the importance of Ashley Tuttle's Judy, angry war widow, has been heightened by Tharp's revisions.
And the dueling sexual exhibitionism of "She's Got A Way" has given way to a more nuanced depiction of post-traumatic loneliness. Now, Tharp said, "it's not so simplistic."
The revisions haven't smoothed out all the bumps. But Tharp's changes may give the show a better chance at Broadway success. Tuesday's audience seemed to like the revised "Movin' Out," responding politely to Act 1 and enthusiastically to the often exhilarating second act.
"It's been hard, I'll be honest," Tharp said of the work being done to the show's "first draft." "But we're grateful for Chicago and the audiences."
The show begins previews at New York City's Richard Rodgers Theatre September 30th, 2002 for an October 24th, 2002 opening.
"Movin' Up, Critic Says"
(August 23rd, 2002)
The Chicago pre-Broadway tryout of "Movin' Out," the Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel musical, opened to mixed reviews July 19th, 2002 following several weeks of previews. Chicago Tribune theater critic Michael Phillips, who was initially critical of the show, went back to review a revised version earlier this week.
He came away more positive.
"Judging from Tuesday's performance, Tharp's extensive revisions - focusing on Act I and its problems of narrative clarity - have made for a clearer, more satisfying show," Phillips wrote in his review, in the Tribune's August 22nd, 2002 editions. "Tharp focuses more directly on her primary characters and their travails in Vietnam and back home in America, across 20 years and three decades."
Phillips called Act II "exhilarating." And while he wrote the changes "haven't smoothed out all the bumps," he says they may give the musical a better chance to succeed on Broadway.
"Movin' Out" begins previews September 30th, 2002 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, with an October 24th, 2002 opening.
(August 25th, 2002)
Since its midsummer opening, the Billy Joel dance-theater piece directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp has undergone some felicitious revisions - which is, after all, the point of an out-of-town tryout. Result: Act 1 is both clearer and smoother, and the kinetic payoffs of Act 2 are easier to enjoy. It's still uneven, but Tharp and her impressive corps have gotten "Movin' Out" a lot closer to wherever it's going; through September 1st, 2002 at the Shubert Theatre.
"A Flat Denial"
(August 28th, 2002)
Billy Joel has a beef with Donald Trump. The developer has been claiming that the "Piano Man" was outbid for a three-bedroom condo in a Trump high-rise on Third Ave. by financier Jeffrey Fine. But Joel tells us he pulled out of the deal after changing his mind about the apartment and was never part of any bidding war.
One report claimed that Joel wanted the apartment for his daughter, Alexa.
"It is ludicrous to say I am purchasing a condo in a Trump building for my daughter, who is just entering her junior year of high school," says Joel. "Any apartment I consider buying is for myself. If my daughter is good, she can stay over sometime."