Twyla Tharp and rock 'n' roll is a match made in pop culture heaven. In Movin' Out, she sets the songs of Billy Joel to dance, and the results include some of musical theater's most thrilling moments.
Tharp's choreography communicates something purely American through her quicksilver blend of a sock hop at the high school gym with ballet on point.
She has put together a tremendous company of dancers to tell a story that follows a group of friends from their high school days on Long Island in the 1960s to the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
Movin' Out, which opened Tuesday night at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, is indeed a full-length ballet, but rock fans shouldn't let terminology keep them from the show.
They will be amazed at how well singer-pianist Darren Holden and band perform Joel's music _ probably better than Joel himself these days _ and how brilliant a high-flying leap to a crunchingly loud power chord can be.
Brenda and Eddie, the "popular steadies" of Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, were memorably performed by Laurie Kanyok and Brendan King.
Kanyok is the unattainable sexy beauty of every suburb, hips swiveling in turquoise pedal pushers as she jive dances while the gang drinks beer around Eddie's broken-down sports car, then high-steppingly glamorous in a little red dress and stiletto heels in Uptown Girl.
She is an absolute daredevil of a dancer, tossed around by the men of the ensemble in Big Man on Mulberry Street, yet she was also touchingly sad in her solo to an Irish air.
King is that rare thing, a tough but graceful male dancer, communicating a kind of James Dean charisma in his muscular pirouettes, acrobatic backflips and even a clownish pratfall in Keeping the Faith. Eddie's bonding with buddies Tony (Corbin Popp) and James (Matthew Dibble) is one of the strongest themes. Tharp seems to understand men better than most male choreographers.
The more formal, lyrical dancing of Julieta Gros, as Judy, is a striking counterpoint to the pell-mell energy of the other characters, as in her solo in black to The Stranger. There is so much going on in Tharp's choreography, with each dancer seemingly doing his or her own thing yet totally unified with the whole in a number like Innocent Man.
Dance does have its limits, of course, and there are times that the narrative of Movin' Out barely holds together, but for the most part, it is a riveting creation. The draw of Joel sells a lot of tickets, but as great as his music is, in a lot of ways he's just along for the ride. This is Tharp's show.