Raise the Nylon Curtain

Somehow, there's nothing offensive about, say, Barry Manilow's oeuvre being transformed into a big, shiny musical. In fact, it just plain made sense when one of Manilow's nelly pop songs became a musical comedy called Barry Manilow's Copacabana -- starring The Phantom of the Opera's Frank D'Ambrosio and The Love Boat's Gavin MacLeod! No one cringed when the promoters, quoting the title song, tagged the Manilow musical "the hottest show north of Havana," or when a bunch of girls in mixed-fruit headdresses cha-chaed their way down a giant staircase during the big finale. It was Barry Manilow, after all. People would be alarmed if his music hadn't somehow wound up being chanted and wiggled to by a line of dance-belted chorus boys.

But Billy Joel? The Piano Man was cool once, an ersatz '70s Dylan (okay, maybe nobody's that cool) who wrote gritty life lyrics that told stories with mad-as-heck morals and snippy subtext. Sure, we could dance to Joel's music, but only after a few beers -- and as long as no one else was around. And definitely not in synchronization with a carefully lighted kick line.

But maybe that's not fair. Twyla Tharp's rock-ballet choreography for Movin' Out, the Billy Joel musical opening at Gammage Auditorium on Tuesday, September 6, doesn't include any of the cheese that choreographers typically serve up in traditional musical numbers. Tharp's choreography, which is so exhausting it required two casts for matinee days during its Broadway run, is interpretive and ballet-based, and not performed by singing actors. Instead, the mute dancers loosely interpret Joel's lyrics, which are sung by an onstage Billy Joel impersonator, with modern ballet moves that Tharp created especially for this show. (For dance-challenged fans, the show's playbill provides a plot synopsis that explains the dancers' pantomimes.)

And there, then, is the oddest thing about this Billy Joel musical: It's a collection of tunes by a singer-songwriter who's known for his storytelling, but it's presented without a single story-driven dance performance. Based on two dozen of Joel's best-known songs, Movin' Out tells the story of six lifelong friends who come of age in Vietnam War-era America -- without either dialogue or synchronization of story line to choreography. And while it's an extraordinary idea to interpret Joel's blue-collar rock songs as ballet numbers, it's a notion that can't help but confound at least some of Joel's fans. The producers are probably banking on Tharp's reputation as a '60s radical artiste, but classical dance is classical dance, and it's hard to imagine Joel groupies approving of "Uptown Girl" performed en pointe.

Even casual fans of Joel's music will recognize Movin' Out's main characters, all of whom are lifted from Joel's lyrics. There's Brenda and Eddie from "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," Tony and Sergeant O'Leary from "Movin' Out," even Judy from "Why, Judy, Why." And local theater buffs will recognize Phoenix's own Holly Cruikshank, who's one of the lead dancers in the touring production. But whether local Joel fans or ballet purists will be pleased remains to be seen.

In the meantime, pray that Blondie's Deborah Harry doesn't get any wise ideas.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela