Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 West 46th Street
Potomac Stages Broadway
Legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp has taken the songs of Billy Joel, which were the soundtrack of the generation that emerged from the Viet Nam experience, and created a show that is unlike any seen on a Broadway stage. Part rock concert, part dance piece, part simple story, it still feels very much at home in the theatre that housed the originals of Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, and 1776. It feels at home because, like those legendary shows, it tells a story, it engages its audience and it builds to an emotional fulfillment that is the essence of the Broadway experience. It just does these things differently, that is all.
Storyline: Buddies from Long Island and their girls graduate from high school. The three boys head off to Viet Nam but just two come back to uncertain futures.
The show opens with what Tharp calls an "overture" using Joel's song "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" danced by the cast. Where most overtures introduce the audience to the melodic vocabulary the show will be using to tell its story, here it is the dance vocabulary that is being introduced. Tharp demonstrates her intention to use the moves, the gestures and the forms of more than just the traditional Broadway musical dance routines. She will put some of her women up on pointe, she will use lifts and throws and displays of acrobatic energy and some of the men's leaps will be positively Barishnikovish. The cast portraying characters are all fabulous dancers. They have no lines of dialogue at all - not one word. Instead, they act their parts in that vocabulary of dance and all the important plot points are clearly communicated in this way. Well, all but one. That one is a proposal of marriage, which is pantomimed rather than danced, with the would-be-groom on one knee showing a ring to his hoped-for-bride. It is such a strange moment because Tharp has no difficulty finding a way to communicate every other sentiment, sensation and event in motion.
Just like a classical ballet, the "book" for this musical is closer to a scenario than a play. The story is simple but that doesn't mean it is simplistic. In fact, Tharp has constructed a story that is rich in symbols and in meaning, but it is told in a series of single themed scenes, each of which is designed to make just one point for the plot and then move on. There are two dozen of such scenes and each, like a scene in a ballet, states its point and then repeats it rather than developing it. The song to which each scene is set contributes more to the story through its main theme or its title than to the details of the lyrics. There is no effort here to adapt Mr. Joel's lyrics to fit the needs of the story - instead, frequently just the central point of the song is relevant.
The show sounds just like a Billy Joel concert at the old Cap Center. It should, for the sound design here is a collaboration between Broadway veteran Peter J. Fitzgerald and Joel's long time road sound designer Brian Ruggles. Singing the 26 Billy Joel songs that make up the score (everything from the title song to "Big Shot," "Uptown Girl," "Captain Jack" and "Pressure" with a finale set to "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant") is Michael Cavanaugh, a young-Billy-Joel sound-alike who is also lead piano man in a ten man band. The band is set on a moving bridge above the on-stage action in a scenic design that is both simple and effective, leaving a lot of open space on stage for the dancing. The activity in the wings is clearly visible which can be a bit distracting from time to time. But most of the time, the spectacle center-stage is enough to hold every eye. For about three minutes in Act II it transcends the limits of a single art form and becomes the ultimate expression of the nightmare that was the Viet Nam experience for those who participated in country and in the consciousness of their cohorts at home.
Songs by Billy Joel
Conceived, Choreographed and Directed by Twyla Tharp
Running time 2 hours
Price range $40 - $95