Reviewed by Roxanne Sadovsky and David Erickson
Like outings to the suburbs, typically I only allow myself one visit to a mainstream production per year (two if Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar makes it to town). "Allow" in that I know well and good that a) it will go on too long; b) it will be too loud; c) I will be uncomfortable because I wore a skirt in honor of being at a "dress-up" type of theatre, am seated miles from the aisle beside a large fellow patron from the suburbs and therefore don't have enough leg room to properly cross my legs; d) will ruminate over all the things I could/should be doing instead of being only mildly entertained, kicking myself for believing maybe this one would be different; and e) will have to stand up and join the standing ovationers even though I'm mixed about the whole thing. On the one hand, why not stand and applaud? On the other hand, why should I praise something that doesn't add up to the sum of its parts?
This year's pick was traveling (world premier) Broadway musical Movin' Out, (which beat out "Totally 80s Prom" and "Wicked" because of the promise of 24 Billy Joel songs) presented by Broadway in Minneapolis (part of Broadway Across America), a proud feature of the (relatively) new Hennepin Theatre District. Though somehow "musical" isn't accurate; what to call a show that traces the life of four carefree kids who dance their archetypal story to live Billy Joel covers? Yet aside from borrowing the names Brenda and Eddie from Joel's "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," the action on stage has little in common with the actual lyrics chosen to accompany the plot. Thematically, there are similarities (war, romance, nostalgia, heartbreak, homecoming, etc.), but if you go by the words alone, they don't quite sync up with the twirling and leaping and breakdancing occurring simultaneously on stage, not to mention the S+M scene depicted to "Captain Jack" in the second Act. Undoubtedly, that was a little iffy for the Minnesotans.
Despite the incredible energy produced on stage (I caught myself wondering a couple times how many calories Brenda, danced by Holly Cruikshank, was burning per number, or how Eddie, twirled by Brendan King, was able to resist vomiting), it felt as though all that movement was dubbed to the live music performed under diffused hot pink shadows above the stage, which makes Movin' Out feel slightly "off" for the entire show. Then again, I am a long time Billy Joel fan; his lyrics comforted me as a teenager when nothing else could so I know the nooks and crannies of his songs whose rhythms are etched somewhere deep in my body memory. None of those memories are tempted to pirouette to Movin' Out, or "Anthony's Song," which created a nice little niche for Brenda's love interest, Tony (David Gomez). So admittedly, I may be a bit biased, but there are just some songs that one shouldn't dance to, no matter how talented. Some songs are so great that there's no need to dress up the memories or imagination one can conjure simply by listening. But better I not jump on my "we are products of an overly stimulant dependent society," pedestal.
It kills me to say that after such a strong and immediate opening to "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" with enough lindy hopping to whet my eye-petite for high energy couples dancing, Movin' Out could have ended after Act One. As far as I am concerned, Act Two was completely superfluous since it was so similar to Act One, relying on bringing back the dead to lengthen the story. While pianist, singer and Billy Joel-ist, Darren Holden was kind enough to end the production with "I'm in a Minnesota State of Mind," to which the ordinarily stoic crowd went nucking futz, I had a hard time seeing past (hearing past, I should say) his not actually being Billy Joel. I know: unfair, but for die-hards, we're only human for being in a Billy Joel state of mind, after all. To be fair, Holden did a great job and hit almost every note (as did his band), but it just wasn't the same. So close, yet so far, which seems to be the overall theme. Despite the overall success of Movin' Out, including a 2003 Tony for best choreography, if that's movin' up, well heck, then I'm movin' out.
I'd never been to a theatrical "tribute" show before, partially because they're such rare birds to begin with, outside pure "band" tributes like Beatlemania, or whichever Led Zepplin tribute is appearing at your local bar this weekend.
I believe that when they do these things for the youngsters, they usually put them on ice, which distracts the tykes from the redundancy of seeing something that they can already watch on tv, and with much better sound. Hence, "Toy Story", "Beauty and the Beast" , "Sesame Street" on ice -- in effect, tribute shows to the original product, and more product to boot.
Not being a tyke, there was a certain feeling of "yeah...so?" It's not that the performances weren't top-notch. The dancers were highly skilled, energetic and athletic, to the point that I worried about pulled muscles and stress fractures. The band was dead on, right down to the tall guy in back doing the falsetto flourishes during "Longest Time". Darren Holden was an impressive surrogate Joel, confidently managing the keys while singing his heart out, though I suspect his vocal abilities surpassed the original artist, and he was probably coasting through some of it. I would, if I was putting out 5 shows a week (there's two "Billys" switching off). No matter, the whole production roared along with great enthusiasm and even pushed the concept envelope a little during numbers for "Goodnight, Saigon" and "Captain Jack". The staging and lighting were crisp and flashy, without overwhelming the outstanding performances.
So I have to admire the skill and dedication of the theatre gypsies and their musical comrades, while at the same time wonder what the point is. I personally like a lot of Billy Joel's songbook, and missed some songs that presumably weren't appropriate for the "storyline", like "Allentown", and "All for Lena". I was sorry to hear "Only the Good Die Young" sped through sans vocal like so much elevator music, and bewildered to sit through songs whose lyric content had no connection to the grand jetes flying back and forth onstage, so it's okay by me to just put the CD on at home and soak in the originals. Twyla Tharp's choreography is of course accomplished, but the sight of dancers pirouetting and back-flipping to "Still Rock and Roll to Me" was enough to set my teeth on edge within thirty seconds of the curtain rising. Definitely a genre of show alien to my nature.
The Tonys the original production received may have been well-deserved (I wasn't in New York for the 2002 season...or any other, for that matter) for all I know, but they were for "Orchestration" and "Choreography", not "Book" or "Lead Role". So while it might be considered one heck of a tribute show, and the middle-aged and older crowd who seemed mostly fully engaged seemed to be enjoying themselves, I still felt the urge to run out to Samuel French and rent some old "West Side Story" or "Candide" scripts, just to give these talented folks something better to do. Sorry, Bill.