On stage at the Pantages Theatre, the five leads in "Movin' Out" are introducing themselves in high-voltage abstractions of social dance, jazz and athletics while a superb nine-member band on a catwalk above the stage performs "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" so lovingly you start wondering if you've got enough cash to buy the CD on sale in the lobby.
"Movin' Out" gets no better than this engulfing fusion of spirit and prowess -- not for its characters, who will endure two decades of hard times, nor for its audience, who will suffer two hours of hard-sell.
Los Angeles got its first look at this award-winning dance-musical on Friday, but it somehow seemed strangely familiar in concept and plot. Back in 1997, the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet danced Dennis Nahat's "Blue Suede Shoes" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (and later on a PBS telecast), using Elvis Presley songs to tell the story of three high school jocks who go into the Army and then from one misadventure to another.
That's exactly what happens in "Movin' Out," except that the pulse and heart of the show now belong not to Presley's songwriters but to Billy Joel, whose 24 songs -- 26 if you count the unscheduled encores performed by Joel himself at the premiere on Friday -- provide a core of feeling and stylistic integrity that keeps the whole project on track.
Muscular, penetrating and passionate, the songs become superb theater music here, with Darren Holden singing them not merely as Joel's deputy, or as accompaniment to the dancing, but as a star performance by itself.
Director-choreographer Twyla Tharp originally created the show for the same principals who performed her concert-dance repertory at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2001. Again, the dance audience will easily spot the links between her new work on that occasion -- the flips, throws and catches, plus sudden explosions of turns, in "Westerly Round," or the kick-your-partner aggression of "Known by Heart" -- and very similar strategies in "Movin' Out."
However, in form and content the show is something far worse than a mere choreographic rehash: Except for odd patches of Tharpian invention here and there, it's an astonishing negation of everything original in her style in favor of nonstop, off-the-rack, in-your-face bravura.
This was a woman who reinvented pop dancing, along with an insolently deadpan manner of performing it. But this time out, the celebrated speed and density of Tharp's movement camouflages a desperate scavenger hunt for choreographic exclamation points, and emotion has become just a pretext for gymnastic stunts garnished with a little face-acting.
If, side by side, you looked at her breakdown-of-relationships choreography in "Movin' Out" alongside the battling-couples sequence in her "Short Stories" from 1980 (music by Bruce Springsteen), you might well conclude that the newer work represents a crude first draft of the older. Moreover, just when the sheer momentum of the show becomes something like a force of nature, Tharp derails it by arbitrarily inserting spasms of toe dancing that play like Soviet ballet kitsch of the 1950s. "Movin' Out" or "Sellin' Out," take your pick.
OK. Tharp continually subverts her own talent, but why, then, does this show offer so much more than a recap of Joel's hits? Because the level of dancing never falls below stratospheric -- except perhaps when those darn toe shoes appear.
The national tour fields two sets of principal dancers: one appearing Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings (reviewed here), the other Tuesday and Thursday evenings plus Saturday and Sunday afternoons. (The lead vocalist changes as well, though not exactly on the same schedule.)
The capable lyric couple -- Matthew Dibble (James) and Julieta Gros (Judy) -- prove the most undone by Tharp's indulgences, but somebody obviously told Holly Cruikshank (Brenda), Ron Todorowski (Eddie) and David Gomez (Tony) that they're not just leads in a touring musical, or even Broadway stars, but among the most accomplished, charismatic dancers of their generation.
Believe it. Cruikshank can vamp at warp speed, Todorowski hasn't yet found a flip or vault that he can't execute 15 times in a row, and Gomez can go from zero to 90 mph in a count or two: totally relaxed and then powerfully, even dangerously, full-out.
Do you dare look away when dancers like this want you to watch? Do you even notice the mobile chain-link scenic panels designed by Santo Loquasto, the pop Americana costumes designed by Suzy Benzinger, the I-remember-Jennifer-Tipton lighting designed by Donald Holder? Not a chance.
If "Movin' Out" fails as dance, it triumphs as dancing -- and anybody who can't tell the difference should head for the Pantages before the end of October.
Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Special performance at 2 p.m. Oct. 28. No evening performance Oct. 31.
Ends: Oct. 31
Price: $55.50 to $80.50
Contact: (213) 365-3500
Running Time: 2 hours
Darren Holden...Piano, lead vocals
Music and lyrics Billy Joel. Concept, direction and choreography Twyla Tharp. Set design Santo Loquasto. Costumes Suzy Benzinger. Lighting Donald Holder. Sound Brian Ruggles and Peter J. Fitzgerald. Assistant choreographer and assistant director Scott Wise. Production stage manager Eric Sprosty. Additional musical arrangements, orchestration, musical continuity and supervision Stuart Malina.