I’ll tell you what I was expecting of a Billy Joel “musical”. I was expecting a grand overblown rock opera of a show on the scale of We Will Rock You. I was expecting it might possibly tell the story of an innocent man, who is accused of starting a fire, but finally ends up with the uptown girl. I was expecting, in a nutshell, the kitsch in synch.
Instead, and you may be even more surprised than me to hear this, with Movin’ Out I actually got something rather grown up, refined and – I kid you not – pretty good.
Alright, so the lead characters, Brenda and Eddie, take their names from Joel’s Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. And, yes, the story’s thinner than cheap toilet paper. But the great thing about the show is that it meets your low expectations then proceeds to exceed them, one dancing step at a time.
It starts with very little promise indeed. Within fifteen minutes, all of Joel’s biggest hits – and I do mean all of them – have been played by a group of musicians that would be generously described as a very competent house band, and sung by a man who is (and he’d be the first to admit this) not Billy Joel.
We have seen some very competent sub-ballet dancing, a battered old red Cadillac has been driven on and off stage, and a lot of hipsters and high heels have been worn. The story is desperately trying to keep up with Joel’s rich lyricism and initially it all feels a bit like a Night at the Sunday Palladium (and not in a good way).
But then one begins to realise that this is the shape of modern dance. And one begins to appreciate that Joel and the gifted choreographer, Twyla Tharp, have actually taken a pretty big punt on people “getting” the dance bit – an audience that is generally, it is fair to say, more Chicago than Coppelia. And while one might wonder if the producers are being over-ambitious in trying to shoe-horn two quite different genres together – “rock n’roll” and “ballet” – one cannot fault them for giving it a go.
It is in the second half that the two elements meld together more naturally and the show begins to sparkle. The reason may be that the first half is dominated by the relative weight of the “big songs”, while the second uses some of Joel’s subtler, less bombastic music to illustrate the hero’s fall and rise. It also introduces a much more acrobatic dance feel, which works better than the faux-balletic movement of the earlier scenes.
There are some astonishing performances from the leads – the stage really missed them when they were not there, (and I did occasionally wonder if one or two of the ensemble dancers were from an episode of Faking It). The lithe, effortlessly flexible and sexual performance from Holly Cruikshank deserves particular praise. Laura Costa Chaud had a weightless delicacy that was often moving, and Ron Todorowski was an acrobat of the first order.
This will not, as they say, “run and run”. It will not last because, while it is too populist for Sadler’s, it is not populist enough for the Apollo Victoria. Nor does it have the power of the songs to sustain it. For this reason alone I would recommend it – it is not the best dance production you will ever see, nor is this the best music ever written. But at times there is real magic, and we should treasure every little bit of that we find in the theatre.