Movin’ Out takes Benedum by storm

<i>Movin' Out</i> boasts excellent choreography and a mix of dance moves. (credit: Courtesy of Joan Marcus) <i>Movin' Out</i> boasts excellent choreography and a mix of dance moves. (credit: Courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out reinvents the way musicals are put together.

Musicals are usually thought of as goofy, jaunty little pieces where, in the midst of calamity or joy, the characters will all of a sudden break out into song and dance. While this is not how life always goes, it’s still a fun to watch people at the height of their emotions set their feelings to music. Movin’ Out, the new musical playing at Benedum Center, is something a little different.

Movin’ Out is a musical that relies on its music: That is, while there are dancers and actors, none of the people portraying any of the roles actually do any speaking, except for the drill sergeant. The piece is instead carried by Joel’s lyrics, which are woven around the scenes. While this might seem a little strange at first, the audience soon gets used to it, and finds fun in learning to read the dancers’ moves for clues about what their characters are feeling.

This musical leaves a lot up to the audience. While a synopsis is listed in the playbook, making it easy to track what the dancers are doing, it’s still fun to sit back and figure out what’s going on. The caliber of the performance was excellent. The dancers performed aerials with ease, and the choreography combined modern moves with classical backgrounds for a neat twist.

Plot-wise, Movin’ Out is a story about a group of high school friends from the ’60s who has its share of breakups and drama. Initially, Eddie and Brenda are a hot couple, while James and Judy, who are high school sweethearts, hope to spend the rest of their lives togekther. Tony, the odd man out, is comfortable and easy-going, and the group gets along well.

Then, things start to get messy. Eddie and Brenda break up, and Eddie tries to win Brenda back, but with no luck: Brenda has gone her own way and starts seeing Tony instead. James proposes to Judy and the two begin to plan their wedding for the month after graduation. Everything seems just as it should be until the Vietnam War begins and Eddie, James, and Tony are drafted.

What is intriguing is how all the songs carry from one scene to the next. “Uptown Girl” plays when Brenda starts looking for a new guy and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” blasts across the stage as the scene switches between Judy worrying about her fiance and the boys fighting in the jungle. All the songs are performed live by a band on the second tier of the stage, and on occasion a musician or a dancer will look above or below and nod or wave. These simple gestures tie the configuration together neatly.

It is also admirable how well the props and the costumes are used. In a string of bar scenes — every one of the main characters finds himself or herself in a bar (or dancing on the bar) at some point during the plot — with each of the bars set up differently. While Eddie is drowning out his sorrow over the death of one of his companions with drugs, the bar scene becomes surreal, with the dancers swaying in strange outfits that they’d been hiding underneath their day clothes. Later, Eddie and Judy, having met while out jogging, dance classically in their running outfits. It’s a tribute to the dancers and the musical itself that somehow it manages to incorporate the classical, established skills with new, more modern forms of dance.

While the scenes are simplistic, they are also very poignant. At the height of his despair at James’ death, Eddie is surrounded by three dancers with out all look like Judy, harshly striking out at him and accusingly making circles around him. This scene portrays how trapped Eddie feels, his guilt, and how he feels like he can never get out from all the stress surrounding him. Appropriately, “Pressure” is the song that goes along with that scene.

In the end, though, everything comes together: Judy gets back into the dating scene, Eddie comes to terms with himself, as well as with Tony and Brenda’s relationship, which has had some troubles of its own. While its way of being a musical is unconventional, Movin’ Out is perfect for the adventurous theater-goer or Billy Joel fan. It promises to excite and keep the audience members on the edge of their seats all the way to the grand finale.