The sounds of Billy Joel’s piano recently took over the National Theatre, but not for a concert. It was the first Broadway tour and D.C. debut of the smash hit Movin’ Out. In the tradition of recent dance shows like Swing and Contact and musician-inspired musicals like Mamma Mia, Movin’ Out is an energy-packed synergy of two genres that deserves of all the hype.
Using only Billy Joel songs and masterful choreography, director/choreographer Twyla Tharp weaves a moving tale about their generation. The plot centers around four memorable characters from Joel’s lyrics: Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” Tony from “Movin’ Out” and Judy from “Why, Judy, Why?” The story follows them from their high school graduation in the summer of 1965 through the tumultuous decade spanning the Vietnam War. The musical’s only spoken words are those of a drill sergeant, while the rest of the story is conveyed through beautiful, erotic and acrobatic dance.
Since Tharp staged both the original production and the national tour, it could only be expected that the tour would measure up to its New York counterpart. Many of the dancers were drawn from the original production with others brought in from the best companies in the world.
Darren Holden, the pianist who sings the entire score, was recently invited to perform songs from Movin’ Out at the 2004 National Tree Lighting and Christmas Pageant of Peace on the Ellipse. The Ireland native was recently nominated as New Music Weekly’s “Best Country Artist.”
The National Theatre set is simplistic, leaving plenty of room for the dancers. However, it does not draw enough attention to Holden. Although his performance was spectacular and reminiscent of a Billy Joel concert, he and the equally outstanding band sang into the lights on a platform 30 feet above the stage.
Donald Holder designed the lighting beautifully, creating sharp contrasts between the mood of each song. The stark lines during “Pressure” were a chilling reminder of the effects of the Vietnam War, effectively accenting the dramatic choreography.
Holly Cruikshank was magnetic as Brenda, her great stature forgotten once she began to dance and expressively portray her character. Julieta Gros, as Judy, was not as talented an actress but made up for it with her dancing ability. Her solo en pointe during “Pressure” was graceful and haunting; critical in the musical’s climax.
Although much of the choreography contains elements of acrobatics, no dancer was as impressive as Ron Todorowski in the role of Eddie. After easily completing 20 pirouttes, he would launch into back flips, bringing a roar from the audience.
Movin’ Out is the perfect fusion of contemporary dance and classic pop music. It is Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel at their best.
Movin’ Out runs at the National Theatre until Dec. 19. Half price student tickets are available at the box office for Tuesday and Wednesday evenings and Sunday matinees. For more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org.
-Sacha Evans contributed to this article.