They've Got a Way

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You can waste a lot of time trying to decide exactly what to call Movin' Out, the new Twyla Tharp show set to Billy Joel's music. It's not a traditional musical because none of the main characters say a word — or even sing. You're getting warmer if you think of a choreographed rock concert for which the star hasn't shown up but a lot of really good dancers have. Or maybe just compare it with previous dance pieces Tharp has done to popular music by Jelly Roll Morton, the Beach Boys and others. But then what's it doing on Broadway?

Setting a new standard for the rock musical, that's what. Tharp, the celebrated choreographer, directing just her second Broadway show, has taken 25 or so of Joel's songs and strung them in a loose narrative, chronicling the lives of three Long Island buddies who start out in the '60s messing around with girls and cars, get dragged off to Vietnam and then come home (most of them) to try to put their lives back together. After the show mystified some critics in its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, Tharp performed fairly major surgery: trimming some muddled narrative from the first act, tacking on an upbeat opening number (It's Still Rock and Roll to Me) and a rather too obvious closer (New York State of Mind) and in general making the show cleaner and clearer.

It worked in Chicago; it works better on Broadway. Tharp says what attracted her to Joel's music was its energy, and she has matched it with an exhilarating display of frenetic, fist-pumping choreography that seems to want to burst out of the theater. With singer-pianist Michael Cavanaugh performing the vocals from a platform above the stage, Movin' Out makes the best case possible for Joel's eclectic musicianship. Sentimental ballads like She's Got a Way (sung while a separated couple yearn for each other in bars halfway across the world) have never been so naked or emotional. The overt social commentary of songs like Goodnight Saigon now seems like the mournful voice of a troubled era. The African-flavored River of Dreams (showcasing the dazzlingly athletic Benjamin Bowman) was never so soul stirring. And classic rock on Broadway never sounded so good.