One way to make sense of Movin’ Out is to imagine it on skates. A couple of triple lutzes cleanly landed would go a long way toward defining the carny sensibilities of the show, in which familiar old songs by Billy Joel, performed by an onstage band, are dramatized, without spoken dialogue, through familiar-looking new dances from Twyla Tharp. Indeed, spritzes of ice would be just the visual fillip to accentuate the fearsome athleticism of Tharp’s lithe dancers as they whiz through three decades of American melodrama, circa 1960-1990: high school friendship and romance, war and drugs, postwar disillusionment and dissolution, class reunion reconciliation and nostalgia.
A better way, though, to take in the post-Contact spectacle of Movin’ Out — Broadway’s newest celebration of recycling the old and calling it fresh — may be to watch with closed eyes. Not that Tharp’s signature choreography isn’t hot-doggedy and sly, full of the high- and lowbrow smashes of technique and cultural references that the canny, aging impresario has always loved. But Joel’s songs deliver all that information directly to our senses just the way they are. It’s impossible to hear a classic song by the Piano Man (Movin’ Out trots out 28 of them, including ”Uptown Girl, ”We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and ”Only the Good Die Young,” although not ”Piano Man”) and not instantly remember the time and place where we heard that song before…even if we were never where we imagine we were. A taste for Joel’s potent narrative ballads and anthems may be personal; a hard-wiring into his stories, at least for the generation of boomers he sings about, is default.
And that, dear Big Shot, is default of Movin’ Out, which lays a hectic, second-rate plot (conceived and directed by Tharp) over choreography tricky enough to deserve more concentrated admiration. Then the show lays antic dancing (by an alternating cast of matinee and nighttime performers, every one of them a paragon of abs and quads) over songs so redolent with memory that what’s on stage is a distraction from what’s in the head.
By the time the tribute band (lined up on a tier above the dancers like go-go musicians) gets through with the songs (led by soundalike Michael Cavanaugh in the evening perfs, Wade Preston in the matinees), all appreciation of Movin’ Out as a hybrid experiment in dancing-singing theater, or even as a fine old-fashioned pageant of nostalgia, is overridden: What we’ve got here is Joelscapades. And for that, a seat amid the booming reverb of the Madison Square Garden sound system is the place to be.