This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
One of the finest Los Angeles stage events of the past few years took place in December of 2002, when UCLA Live! presented a production of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck. What was seen at the Freud Theater followed Buchner's story about a mental patient who slowly and violently loses his mind; but this Woyzeck was something entirely unique due to director Robert Wilson and songwriter Tom Waits, who transformed this tale of early 20th century paranoia into a timeless piece of haunting musical theater.
Those who saw this Woyzeck will want to know that Wilson and Waits have another collaboration which is about to finish its only West Coast engagement in San Francisco. Like Woyzeck, this new piece entitled The Black Rider takes a grim Germanic tale-in this case a Faustian pact about a marksman and some magic bullets-and turns it into a sort of postmodern cabaret act where Wilson's stylized designs and Waits' laconic songs once again mesh-or perhaps clash-perfectly.
Marianne Faithful plays the part of Pegleg, the Mephistophelian Master of Ceremonies (a character that almost makes Joel Grey's Emcee from Cabaret seem wholesome) and the rest of the cast is made up of a talented collection of international actors, artists, dancers, and singers.
The Black Rider may not be as succinct as the Woyzeck of two years ago, but it is equally captivating. Casual fans of Tom Waits and Robert Wilson may choose to wait, as the show could wind up at UCLA in the future; but Waits' final ballad from The Black Rider is definitely an ode to the ephemeral nature of theater and life: "I; can't be found
In the garden
Singing this song
When the last
Rose of summer is gone." Down here in Los Angeles, another strange amalgamation of song and dance is making its way west: the Broadway spectacle known as Movin' Out. Inspired by the songs of piano man Billy Joel, this musical of sorts tells the story of two young suburban couples who come of age during the 1960's and 1970's.
But just as The Black Rider isn't your average avant-garde musical; Movin' Out is not a typical Broadway show either. There are no spoken interludes, simply music-24 of Billy Joel's greatest hits, played consecutively-as the story of Brenda and Eddie is told entirely through dance.
The dancing is courtesy of Twyla Tharp, which gives Movin' Out a higher artistic pedigree than other Rock-n-Roll greatest hit shows like the ABBA musical Mamma Mia or the Queen musical We Will Rock You.
But sadly this smelting of Billy Joel's Long Island ballads and Tharp's Manhattan choreography rarely produces any theatrical spark. The dancing is impressive but it rarely informs the music or the lyrics. One or two scenes call to mind Jerome Robbins' talent for using dance to gently support a narrative-but for the most part, the choreography is either too abstract or too on the nose.
Dance lovers who like Broadway or Broadway lovers who like dance will be much more satisfied by another work that sets lively choreography to shamelessly popular music. The work is entitled "Who; Cares?" and it takes the music of George Gershwin and literally makes it soar. "Who; Cares?" is the work of George Balanchine and it appears here in Los Angeles only once more as part of the New York City Ballet's three-program rotation at the Music Center.
The City Ballet is performing a number of Balanchine's famous ballets-including Symphony in C and Serenade-but "Who; Cares?" seems to represent something special. Many people today try to bring popular culture and high art together. Wilson and Waits have succeeded with their dark, brooding collaborations, but Balanchine has done something even rarer still. "Who; Cares?" does not have a vulgar or pandering moment in it,-and yet it is entirely entertaining, crowd pleasing, and just plain fun.
The New York City Ballet appears at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through Sunday; Movin' Out continues at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood through October 31; and The Black Rider closes this Sunday at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.