The simple plot provides just enough narrative to keep story-hungry brains happy: High-school buddies Eddie, Tony and James fight the realities and memories of Vietnam, while Brenda (Eddie's ex and Tony's current lover) and Judy (James' wife) deal with the aftermath of the conflict. There's passion, grief, self-doubt, forgiveness -- and it's all done without dialogue. Tharp lets the bodies talk -- sensual, raw emotions speak clearly through toes and elbows -- and the talented dancers are excellent communicators.
As Eddie, Ron Todorowski takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Dressed in black leather, he pirouettes through sadness and euphoria over his breakup with Brenda. In Act Two, home from the war, he kicks his way through "Angry Young Man" and explores the shadowland of drugs and violent sex in "Captain Jack." Holly Cruikshank as Brenda starts off overly dramatic, with lots of hand-clutching to her chest as she breaks up with Eddie, but once past that moment she comes into her own as the "Uptown Girl." She hooks up with Tony (David Gomez) in a steamy "This Night." Gomez and Cruikshank sizzle whenever they're onstage, and their on-again-off-again relationship in Act Two comes to an erotic climax in "Shameless."
As the sweet couple Judy and James, Julieta Gros and Matthew Dibble combine excellent technique with engaging acting. Gros moves effortlessly from grief to anger in the Act One finale, "The Stranger," ending with a haunting toe dance as the lights fade. Dibble seems to have made a deal with the dance devil to defy the force of gravity; when he leaps, he seems to float forever before lightly touching down. His precise body-isolation work in the war sequence is stunning.
As the piano man, Darren Holden performs Billy Joel's style without trying to imitate him -- a tricky business, but neatly done. He doesn't have Joel's vocal range (a tenor in the band helps out on the high notes in "Innocent Man") but his engaging vocal style and energetic playing match the visual excitement of the dancers. In a unique move, Holden and the band perform the encore number, and their "St. Louis" rendition of "New York State of Mind" brings the evening to an appropriately upbeat end.
Billy Joel's smartest move was agreeing to let Tharp do the musical, and then staying out of her way. She uses his songs as a backdrop, as mood music, and as literal story, but her choreography is always unexpected. Sometimes the movements match the song text: When a scene is described as "like some pornographic magazine," the dancers reflect that. Other times, movement opposes the text -- Tony falls to his knees, for example, while Holden sings, "I'm standing."
Tharp combines classical ballet, modern jazz and gymnastics, freely sampling movement of all kinds and filling the stage canvas with so many rich details it's impossible to see (or describe) them all. Each member of the dance chorus has shining moments, from amazing hand-walking to drag-queen swirls to group lifts. Tharp belongs on the list of contemporary theater visionaries along with Julie Taymor, Anne Bogart and Mary Zimmerman -- all of whom have revitalized theater in exciting ways. Donald Holder's eye-popping lighting design combines concert and theatrical effects, while Suzy Benzinger's stunning costumes comprise a nostalgic tour of 1970s fashions. It's a must-see night in the theater, a visual adventure that satisfies the ear, the eye and the heart.