The numbers speak for themselves - 100 million dollars taken at the box office, over 1,300 performances on Broadway and even two Tony awards have been flung towards Movin' Out. But with its clutch of Billy Joel songs and a story orienting itself around Vietnam I approached Movin' Out with something resembling the slight suspicion one might approach a piece of foreign matter. Because it's not very British is it?
And indeed it wasn't. Telling the story of five friends and their changing relationships over the course of three decades through the medium of dance and Billy Joel's back catalogue, Movin' Out -somewhat thankfully - employs a twist on the usual familiar songs fashioned into a musical format. Here the songs come not out of the words of the characters but from James Fox's Pianoman, who oversees proceedings perched with a full band on a moving platform above the stage. There is no doubt about the infectious nature of Fox's - and the band's - delivery of Joel's music which had the audience happily clapping and bouncing throughout. But the Pianoman is the narrator who must - or should - ultimately blend with the story being delivered.
The substance of Movin' Out therefore belongs to the dancers who display the kind of energy and enthusiasm that often manages to rival that of Fox and in places even eclipse him. In particular Laura Costa-Chaud as Judy manages to effectively convey the crushing devastation Vietnam brings upon her whilst Ronnie Todorowski is outstanding as the bewildered, almost broken Eddie on his return from military service. Separately they account for much of the production's emotional heart and it is in these characters that Twyla Tharp's choreography - which is interesting, vibrant and often prone to spontaneous moments of applause from the audience - shows its most clear flashes of brilliance.
But therein lies the flaw. Flashes. In many ways Movin' Out is something of a disjointed production. At its best Tharp's choreography seamlessly melts with the music and story; all too often though the show is hampered by too literal interpretation of the lyrics of Joel's songs and the fusion fails to occur. Certainly it is noticeable that none of the Tony awards were for Movin' Out's book which, especially prior to the characters leaving for Vietnam, is rather patchy. There is an interesting story within it and whilst Vietnam may not have the emotional pull for us in Britain as it does in America the production might well have had something to say about our own current military preoccupations. Sadly, all of this remains buried.
Movin' Out is certainly not without its merits - it has an energy and vitality about it that is difficult not to like and Joel's songs performed as they are with gusto and passion are immediate crowd pleasers. On the whole, however, it remains a production of black and white; there is no delicate shading or probing of the issues at its heart and consequently it ultimately seems rather glib. Movin' Out definitely lights some sparks but it doesn't look like there's going to be a fire at the Apollo Victoria for the next few months.
Movin' Out, Apollo Victoria Theatre, 28/03/05