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Tharp's dances jolt songs by Billy Joel

Movin' Out, which opened Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, attempts to use the songs of Billy Joel as the soundtrack for an interpretive dance about the anguish of the Vietnam generation. That's asking a lot from one man's work.

Joel certainly has a recognizable songwriting style, infused with the jubilant energy of early rock 'n' roll, but when lined up one after another, his songs begin to seem as predictable and undistinguished as a printed signature. Fortunately, this show was conceived by Twyla Tharp, and her manic, muscular choreography seems to add about 10,000 volts of electricity to the proceedings, making Joel's music feel positively propulsive at times.

Movin' Out has a story line, but it requires a synopsis to help you see the plot through the leaps, spins and gymnastic performances of this powerful dance company, which includes nearly three dozen members. Basically, Brenda (played opening night by the dynamic Laurie Kanyok, who rotates in the role with the acclaimed Holly Cruikshank) breaks up with her prom king boyfriend, Eddie, and hooks up with Tony before he is shipped to Vietnam. They drift apart, but after the war and some dissipation on the home front (aptly danced to Joel's ode to Captain Jack), Brenda and Tony reconcile, and the friends emerge older but wiser from the psychic trauma caused by the war.

That may not be much of a story, but this show isn't about the story. It's about dance, and that's what it delivers, in abundance. Joel may be the name that draws crowds to the theater, but Tharp, with her choreography and direction, clearly gave the show the legs to run for three years on Broadway, followed by this tour, scheduled to last through the year's end.

With impeccable pacing, Tharp keeps the stage filled with the speed, strength and precision of her dancers. Some scenes actually look better from the distant balcony, which provides a better perspective on the dancers' highly orchestrated movements. A nine-member band, featuring a Joel surrogate at the piano (Darren Holden or Matthew Friedman), provides a raucous soundtrack for the dancing.

Unfortunately, the band performs on a balcony high above the stage. On Broadway, that balcony descended from time to time, giving the band a more conspicuous presence, but for the touring production, the band stays put. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It merely focuses more attention on Tharp's inventive, eloquent staging.