There are people who like musicals and people who don't, and rarely does the twain meet: “It's not natural for people to break into song mid-conversation,” complains one friend, who is unswayed by my retort that slaying Orcs isn't natural either.
So what is either camp to make of Movin' Out, the touring Broadway musical playing the Keller Auditorium through Sunday? It isn't in standard musical format; it has no dialogue. The story—about young people whose lives are shattered by Vietnam—is revealed through Twyla Tharp's choreography and Billy Joel's pop hits, which were never intended for theatrical use. This isn't unprecedented, of course: think Across the Universe, Mamma Mia! or Moulin Rouge. Traditionalists have grumbled about the rise of the so-called “jukebox musical,” but it seems to help lure the non-musical-loving public into theaters.
Movin' Out did just that at its 2002 Broadway debut, but here in Portland, attendance was fairly sparse. The economy is a likely culprit, but also I have to ask: Who is this show for? Tharp, best known for her experimental modern choreography, has done musicals before—hell, she's done Vietnam before, in the 1978 film version of Hair. But her gift for inventive, off-kilter movement doesn't shine in this crowd-pleasing choreography, performed by a technically capable but dramatically bland rotating cast (the exception on Friday was Lawrence Neuhauser as Eddie). Here, emotion is conveyed through tricks like big jumps, high kicks and multiple turns; extreme emotion is conveyed through strobe lights. A live band plays Joel's hits perfectly well, but Joel without Joel is more piano bar than Piano Man. There are a few nuggets here for fans of Tharp, Joel and musicals, but truth be told, there's some disappointment as well.