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Show gets cast rockin' on their toes

Movin' Out has two big things going for it: Twyla Tharp's full-length ballet performed to a score of more than two dozen Billy Joel songs. Pianist-singer Darren Holden leads a 10-piece band onstage that gives the show the feel of a rock concert with choreography.

For cast members, it helps to be a Joel fan. "One of the first albums I remember was The Stranger, and it's still one of my favorites," said Holden, 32, an Irishman from the village Mooncoin in County Kilkenny. "My brothers had it, and they just played it constantly, and it was embedded in me. I look at it as being a part of my growing up. So it's ironic that now I'm performing a lot of the songs from that album in a Broadway touring show."

Laurie Kanyok, 32, dances the principal role of Brenda. From Pittsburgh, she also grew up on Joel songs. "I thought I was going to marry the guy," she said.

But for all the appeal of Joel, Tharp made Movin' Out happen. It was her idea to turn the Joel catalog into theater. She persuaded the songwriter to let her do it. And the story is told through her choreography. It follows a group of friends from high school on Long Island in the 1960s to the Vietnam War and its aftermath, into the '80s. The only dialogue consists of commands from a drill sergeant in a scene from basic training.

Kanyok, who has been with Movin' Out since its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago in 2002, likens Tharp to Franco Dragone, the visionary director responsible for Cirque du Soleil's early shows.

"She's the female energy version of Franco," said Kanyok, who was assistant choreographer of La Nouba, the Cirque production in Orlando that Dragone directed. "They show the same energy. Movin' Out was constructed similarly to the way Cirque works: the same amount of hours of work and total commitment."

Movin' Out, which opens a six-day run Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, is the latest in a string of "jukebox shows," musicals built around pop songs, typically from a single artist or group. One of the most successful has been Mamma Mia!, in which playwright Catherine Johnson stitched together a story from ABBA songs. We Will Rock You, with Queen songs, bypassed Broadway and went straight to Las Vegas. Good Vibrations (Beach Boys) and All Shook Up (Elvis Presley) are scheduled for Broadway this year, and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) is playing in San Diego.

All these shows have plenty of great music to choose from, but none has a genius like Tharp (in 1992 she won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant) putting her stamp on the material. Movin' Out continues to draw well in its third year on Broadway.

"I hope that the people who come after Twyla and Movin' Out are able to keep up with her and improve on it," said Kanyok, who thinks that the best models for new-style theater are off-Broadway hits such as Stomp and Blue Man Group and the Cirque productions. "I think the moment it becomes just homogenized theater, it'll die out. I hope they are going to do it with the meticulous care that Twyla did."

As Brenda, Kanyok plays the prom queen whose relationship with Eddie is at the center of Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, the song that opens and closes the show. She has played other roles and agrees with dance critic Sylviane Gold that Tharp gave each principal character a distinctively individual dance language, a rare feat in the all-too-predictable conventions of Broadway choreography.

"The two leading female characters, for instance, Brenda and Judy," Kanyok said. "Brenda's dance vocabulary is a bit edgier, a bit more energetic, a bit spunkier, comical at times, and Judy's language is more fluid and balletic. And the same with the male leading characters. Eddie is a bit more like Brenda; he's frenetic and energetic and whimsical. The Tony character is a bouncy, happy-go-lucky guy, but his movement is sometimes more grounded and softer than Eddie's movement."

Kanyok and Holly Cruikshank alternate as Brenda, with each performing four shows a week. The time off is necessary because the physical strain of a dance musical takes its toll. The company has been plagued by injuries.

"We've had surgeries," Kanyok said. "We've had knee surgery. We're working on a hip surgery. The repetition and the stress cause it. Everybody's sort of baffled by it. We've had this bad reputation around the theater-dance world for breaking people. It's not happening with the principals. It's happening with the ensemble and swings."

The double casting of Brenda and other roles is a luxury in the grind of touring theater, and it leads to aesthetic diversity. Dance aficionados will want to see each principal. Kanyok, who will be in Tuesday night's opening show, is 5 feet 4, and Cruikshank is 6 feet tall, so they are bound to make a different impression in, say, Brenda's glamorous high-kicking steps to Uptown Girl.

The Movin' Out cast has a Tampa Bay area tie. Eric Spear, a member of the ensemble, was a frequent guest soloist with the West Florida Ballet when he was a student at the Joffrey Ballet School.

Holden, the pianist-singer who performs five of the eight weekly shows (Matt Wilson does the others), said 372 people auditioned for the tour before he got the job. "It's one of the great mysteries of this show," he said. "There are people who can sing and play, but not at the same time."

A pop star in Ireland, Holden took an expeditious route to Broadway, as lead vocalist in Riverdance. "The kind of stuff I was singing there was this ancient, Celtic, mystical stuff," he said. "I was this cloaked figure that guided the Irish people. It's definitely a huge leap from doing that to playing piano in a rock 'n' roll show."

Holden faced a challenge with Movin' On: How to perform Joel's songs without sounding like an imitator.

"I sort of consciously made a decision that I wasn't going to be a duplicate, or do a karaoke version of Billy's stuff," he said. "Certain songs I would sing my way while still paying homage to Billy. In songs like Shameless I do my own thing. It's a chance you take, and a lot of people come up after gigs and say, "We love Billy Joel, but we like the fact that you didn't just copy him.' "

Joel has let Holden be himself. "He has been very complimentary. The only thing he ever said to me was that my Irish accent was creeping into a couple of words and phrases, and I really had to develop an East Coast sort of accent. He actually sent me a copy of The Sopranos to get the attitude and develop all these phrases, and it worked."

Joel will sometimes show up for a performance, especially in New York, and come out and play a song at the closing curtain.

"He's around every now and then," Holden said. "Whenever I'm in New York I give him a call just to say hi. You know, Billy's really one of the guys. He likes to hang out and have fun and chat about music and tell stories. While you know you're in the presence of rock royalty, it never feels like you're inadequate or anything. He's a great guy, and he makes you feel very important all the time."