Three months into the current national tour of Movin' Out (arriving at the INB Center, Sept. 25-30), lead dancer Drew Heflin should know his audience. And it's true that baby boomers remember Billy Joel for his Top 40 hits of the late '70s and early '80s. But they might be surprised by Movin' Out, which is primarily a dance show, conceived of by one of the great contemporary choreographers, Twyla Tharp. There's no dialogue, and none of the dancers sing; music and lyrics come entirely from a six-man band suspended on a platform above the stage.
After everyone sets forth their personalities during the overture ("It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me"), high school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie promptly break up during "Scenes From an Italian-American Restaurant." Soon these Long Island kids are rearranging themselves into different couples. The men go off to fight in Vietnam; not all of them return. New relationships are forged, with the story told entirely through Tharp's dance and Joel's lyrics.
Heflin dances the role of Eddie, whose character arc travels from romance to rejection, from war to despair to forgiveness. Eddie tries to seem cocky, says Heflin, but it's all a front: "He wants to be thought of as a tough-as-nails guy, a real ladies' man. But he's still fragile."
Movin' Out, despite being a ballet set to pop music, isn't all that different from a typical theatrical narrative. "Twyla is known for big and phat moves, but she uses a lot of pedestrian movements -- just the basic things you would do when you're breaking up with someone," Heflin says. "It's not even dancing -- it's more like acting, like turning your back on someone or shaking your head.
"A lot of her notes were character notes," he continues. "She wanted us not to act mad but to be mad. Being mad isn't necessarily about gritting your teeth -- it's just in the way you sit still. It's in how fast you turn your face away from someone."
Movin' Out is dance-acted like that all the way through. But as a second, non-Equity national tour (which opened nearly five years after the Broadway original), the current touring show risks being a copy of a copy. How do we know we're still seeing Tharp's choreography?
Not only was Tharp at rehearsals for the current tour "every day for six or eight weeks," says Heflin, but one of the performers from the first national tour, Sean Kelly, has acted as dance supervisor for this tour "and he taught us the show."
What dancers admire most about Tharp, says Heflin, is her "partnering choreography. It's amazing how she can get a couple from an overhead lift down to the ground."
Because his character Eddie breaks up with Brenda early in the show and then spends most of the story working out problems by himself, Heflin dances mostly solo. But when it comes to partners dancing, says Heflin, 'Shameless' is the exclamation point." In this Brenda-Tony reconciliation scene late in the show, Tharp uses "a lot of fearless, thrashy movement." At one point, Heflin says, Tony (John Corsa) is holding Brenda (Amanda Kay) aloft "in what I suppose you might call a 'Superman pose.' Then he sort of rolls his back and she ends up around his waist while they're still connected -- and then, at the end, she crawls over him and picks him up" as the Piano Man on the platform above sings, "I'm shameless when it comes to loving you."
Sometimes, says Heflin, Tharp's choreography "almost looks more like wrestling" than dancing.
Eddie has his own crucible to endure: Vietnam, and the nightmare of being a veteran of an unpopular war. The nightmare of the tragic Vietnam firefight sequence, whatever its emotional impact, will at least be realistic. That's because the same Marine drill sergeant who worked with the original Broadway cast "actually put us through a 48-hour boot camp," Heflin recalls. "We did all the running and the pushups, and we learned all the gestures they use -- when to pause, when to rally. All the movements in that section are realistic, just like in the military."
Vietnam was over and Billy Joel had been cranking out hits for years before Heflin, 27, was even born. That's why he and the cast took a class on the '60s. "I didn't realize how fragile the vets were when they came back, how unappreciated they felt. A lot of the second act is about that. Especially Eddie -- he comes back with no social skills. Everything was completely wiped from him.
"My dad's friends are all vets, and they don't talk about it. I didn't realize it was so widespread throughout the country."
Eddie shares in a lot of veterans' disillusionment -- "Captain Jack" is explicit about drug use -- but by the time "Goodnight, Saigon" arrives, Heflin has had an extended showcase for his dancing skills.
"That's at the end of a long spree of dancing," he says. "It's a nightmare that extends back to 'We Didn't Start the Fire,'" when Eddie goes through that horrific firefight in Vietnam.
"It's very emotional, very athletic dancing" that leads up to a moment of forgiveness. "It's the most exhausting part of the show, and it's probably the section where I'm dancing my best, not holding anything back.
"There's a section where I'm in sync with the ghost [of another character]. It's basically a lot of jumps and turns. In one part, I have to get from stage left to stage right in four counts by doing four jumps. Twyla gave me some freedom in the choreography -- she was OK with letting us show what we can do there."
When you have Heflin's kind of talent, you get to be on a first-name basis with world-class choreographers.
For boomers who remember Vietnam, Billy Joel's songs of social protest may be the touchstone of Movin' Out. (After all, they didn't start the fire.) But for younger playgoers, let the striking dance designs of Twyla Tharp be the gateway to an important chapter of American history.
The Piano Man sings in Movin' Out on Tuesday-Thursday, Sept. 25-27, at 7:30 pm; on Friday, Sept. 28, at 8 pm; on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 2 pm and 8 pm; and on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets: $30-$65. INB Center, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.