The programme for this show describes it as a 'new musical', but 'Movin' Out' is certainly not a musical in the accepted sense of the genre, or what most people would recognise as 'a musical'. Certainly it has a considerable amount of music - specifically 24 of the uniquely streetwise, earthy and evocative rock and roll songs of Billy Joel. And like most musicals it has dance, and there's a considerable quantity of that too, in fact all the way through the show, non-stop. But there's no dialogue or any means other than the dance and lyrics in the songs to tell the story. And since the music and lyrics were not written specifically for the show, the storyline is not so well defined as in most musicals - so much so that if you haven't read the synopsis in the programme, you might be a little lost about what was going on - as indeed I was some of the time.
So, we can easily settle the question about a definition of 'Movin' Out' - it's a dance show, not a musical. Having got that off my chest, I can also say that 'Movin' Out' has exceptional dance, choreographed by a recognised doyenne of the craft - Twyla Tharp, who also dreamed-up the idea as well as directing the whole shooting match too. In a very real sense, this is her 'baby' as opposed to Billy Joel's. It's already had a mega successful run on Broadway (grossing over 100 million dollars, apparently) as well as a highly successful tour of the USA.
The story revolves around a small group of Long Island kids in the 1960s. We first meet them as teenagers in, or just about to leave, high school, and we follow them through conscription into the army and service in Vietnam. We then observe their return home and the subsequent difficulties they face in adjusting to ‘normal’ life. In the end, as the programme synopsis notes: ‘the friends reunite to discover they have all found their way back home’. Or to translate, 'they all lived happily ever after'. Oh dear. I'm not sure how many Vietnam veterans would agree on that outcome. Still, on the stage at least, anything is possible.
In its American incarnation, this show garnered two Tony awards - one for best orchestrations and one for best choreography. But given the strength of those two elements as well as Joel’s songs, one might have expected it to also pull off the 'best musical' award. Not so. And there is a good reason for it. The show basically lacks that 'something' to pull the excellent elements together and draw in the audience to the whole thing. For much of the time, I rather felt like a passive observer on the sidelines rather than being 'caught-up' in the atmosphere, story or characters. In that sense, the format for 'Movin' Out' is irritatingly similar to 'Sinatra at the London Palladium', though there's not the same amount of technical wizardry in 'Movin' Out'. 'Sinatra' has a more explicit storyline, since Sinatra's voice over does the storytelling. In 'Movin' Out', the storyline is developed solely in the dance and lyrics. It’s easy to get lost in what’s going on.
However, three things stand out about 'Movin' Out'. First, the dancing is just about as good at it gets, and the choreography is seductive and highly imaginative. Second, the music is simply Billy Joel at his best, and it's brilliantly executed by lead vocalist/ pianist James Fox, and a vibrant band of 10. And finally, the dance complements the music rather than challenging or grating against it. However, I think I would have preferred to have a number of vocalists tackle the singing rather than just one person. Excellent though James Fox undoubtedly is, I began to find the format somewhat repetitive after a while. Nevertheless, Fox has an appealing and commanding voice with the range to cope with Joel's songs, and he's well supported by an exciting band. There's some emotive sax playing from an excellent horn section, and though the volume was a little on the loud side, it is foot-tapping stuff which is hard to fault.
Similarly, the dancing is terrific. It's a blend of modern dance and ballet - if anything, leaning more towards ballet, and it got a rousing reception from the audience. It's athletic and energetic, though for the most part not so acrobatic. Or at least, that's how it seemed until we got into the second half of the second half, when we were treated to a delicately executed handstand and more risky lifts than we'd seen until then. Like the music, it’s hard to fault the dancing from this large and hugely talented ensemble.
If you're a Billy Joel fan, you'll love the music in this show. If you love dance, you'll be in raptures about the skill and dynamism of the dancers, and suitably impressed with the creativity of Tharp's choreography. But if you're a fan of musicals, you may find the dance overwhelming and the absence of a strong storyline and dialogue bewildering, leaving you feeling a little ‘out in the cold’.
What the popular press had to say.....
SARAH FRATER for THE EVENING STANDARD says, " Tissue-thin drama...bombastic characters, although Tharp's dancers and Joel's music are every bit as sensational as you've heard." ZOE ANDERSON for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The dancing is athletic, hard-driven and relentlessly slick...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." JUDITH MACRELL for THE GUARDIAN says, "Feels closer to modern ballet than pop tribute...Yet enjoyable as individual moments are, this show remains an unsatisfactory hybrid." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "I was amazed to discover that I knew most of the 20-plus songs included here without ever quite realising that I did, as if I had somehow absorbed them by osmosis. When combined with Twyla Tharp's often thrilling choreography, this is a show that really packs a punch." DEBRA CRAINE for THE TIMES says, "It’s the best show dancing in town." LISA MARTLAND for THE STAGE says, "Tharp’s choreography is outstanding."