Twyla Zone

Gotta Dance:Movin' Out sets Billy Joel songs to Tharp's dances.Photo: Joan Marcus

Twyla Tharp’s second try at a Broadway musical is worse than her first, Singin’ in the Rain, in 1985. It would, of course, help if Movin’ Out were set to music rather than to Billy Joel, but we are used to street noise and can tune out this tuneless stuff without too much effort. As for the words, they largely get lost on their own, and can be dismissed as dialogue snippets overheard on the subway. That leaves the dancing, which, if we are to believe the program, tells a story, something Tharp apparently cannot do. When, afterward, I read in the synopsis something about Long Islanders during the Vietnam era, this came as news to me. If you had told me it was about Carnaby Street during the Mod heyday, I would have believed it just as much.

In Act One, the choreography is very tired indeed, rehashing not only Tharp’s clichés but also some other people’s. Still, resist the urge to flee, because Act Two is better, at moments even quite good: Finally, there is some invention here, though more for the men than for the women, whose chief function is to be tossed about. The dancers are on target: The fetching Elizabeth Parkinson is wonderfully various, Ashley Tuttle a dream on pointe, and John Selya simply overwhelming; only Keith Roberts rather annoys.

Working on a shoestring, Santo Loquasto (set) and Suzy Benzinger (costumes) did not knock themselves out. Donald Holder tried harder on the lighting, to no avail. If you have foreign visitors who speak no English, this is the show for them.

Your reaction to the musical Amour, a French import, will depend largely on your feelings about Michel Legrand and terminal cutes. To my mind, Legrand has always been a serviceable hack whose through-composed movie musicals struck me as excruciating (and worse, as when, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, they were staged). Amour is Legrand through and through.

Since it is a sung-through opera bouffe, the musical numbers have no individual titles, but the bouncy one about taking a plunge is pleasant enough, and a bedroom duet for the lovers, Dusoleil and Isabelle, is an ingratiating waltz. The rest, even while the scenery keeps rising from the floor or descending from the flies, remains unremittingly flat. The English lyrics, by Jeremy Sams, are clever and often saucy, as in a whore’s “Better a blow job / Than no job at all,” or in the heroine’s reading in a fan magazine about “other people’s sin: / Why does David Niven live with Errol Flynn?” They do strain, though, as when someone photographed with Himmler “should be sent to the guillotine or something sim’lar,” and when Montmartre hopes to rhyme with coup de théâtre.

The book, as developed from Marcel Aymé’s 1943 novella Le Passe-muraille by the currently acclaimed novelist Didier van Cauwalaert, and as Englished by Sams, moves along chipperly. It is the story of the nerdy clerk Dusoleil who discovers that he can walk through walls and puts this to various romantic and practical uses, whether he is pursuing the young, unhappily married Isabelle, or simply escaping from jail. This conceit had particular relevance for the French during the Occupation, but set in 1946 and seen today, it doesn’t resonate. The technical aspects of wall-traversing are ably handled by Scott Pask’s scenery and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting; Donna Granata gets added laughs with her costumes.

Malcolm Gets, hair moussed into a finger-in-the-socket spike, is a wonderfully dorky Dusoleil, whether losing his door key or screwing up his courage to the stalking point. As Isabelle, Melissa Errico shuttles deliciously between the demurely woebegone and the joyously sexy. There is good support from the small ensemble, which, through versatile doubling, manage to convey le tout Paris. James Lapine has directed mischievously, and Jane Comfort has provided amiably goofy dances. I just wish I had had as much fun as the cast.

One of Bertolt Brecht’s best poems runs: “I sit on the road’s edge. / The driver is changing the wheel. / I don’t like it where I come from. / I don’t like it where I’m going. / Why do I watch the wheel change / With impatience?” The National Actors Theatre production of Brecht’s 1941 The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui features placards in the lobby with quotations, among them this poem, wrongly translated: “Why, with importance [sic] do I wait … ” This kills the meaning: restlessness and malaise.

So the play is not only a warning about Hitler and the Nazis that translates them into Al Capone and American gangsterdom, but is also about Brecht’s impatience with a world where everyone is stupid or evil or both. Arturo’s rise is irresistible (Brecht dropped “resistible” from the final version), because no real force for good exists.

What works about the NAT production is that it can afford a large cast, that it has some big-name actors in it, and that it moves, unencumbered by scenery, with a speed that conveys both chaos and inevitability. But the director, Simon McBurney, of the overrated Théâtre de Complicité, overtaxes his staging otherwise. There are nonstop rear projections by way of décor, sometimes apt, sometimes overdone and confusing, and detracting with their redundancy from the narrative line.

Exaggeration thrives in other ways too. We get the Valentine’s Day Massacre not once but in triplicate. Dullfeet (Dollfuss), meant to be boyishly small, is turned into a ludicrous dwarf, laughable rather than ineffectual. Some excessive amplification obscures the text. Costumes overdo the outlandishness. Worst, Al Pacino is not content to make Ui into a nasty little man who transforms himself into a monstrous big man. His Ui is part animal (a man-size, creepy-crawly bug), part grandiose horror-movie protagonist (Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. rolled into one), and rather too much of a bad thing. Many of the supporting players do handsomely; I must mention at least Billy Crudup, William Sadler, and Steve Buscemi.

You may watch this production, as Brecht did that wheel change, with impatience, but even though this is one of his poorest plays, further impaired by George Tabori’s heavyhanded translation, it is still a showcase for histrionic talent.

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Movin’ Out
Musical drawn from the Billy Joel songbook; staged by Twyla Tharp.
Adaptation by Jeremy Sams of the French show with music by Michel Legrand; staged by James Lapine and starring Malcolm Gets and Melissa Errico.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Revival of the Bertolt Brecht play, starring Al Pacino.

Twyla Zone