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Courtesy OCPACTwyla Tharp's musical Movin' Out, a story of the Vietnam War told through the songs of Billy Joel (!) is tailor-made for someone like me, a member of a generation that knows the war mostly in celluloid form, from movies like Platoonand the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary. With photos of coffins and combat strictly verboten today, it's sad but true that sometimes the war in Iraq seems equally intangible.

Although the current war isn't yet as unpopular as Vietnam (though 60 percent of Americans now say it wasn't worth fighting), Marc Leepson, from the communication department at the Vietnam Veterans of America, notes that Movin'Outdeftly portrays the effect of all wars on society.

"I think you are dealing with some timeless things here. The issues of what it means to go to war and come back changed. The impact that it has on your family and yourself," he said. "It happens in every war; the end result is that men and women come back from a war zone to a peaceful society."

Tharp personalizes it, portraying the saga of three friends and the lovers they leave behind, complete with ballet-trained dancers doing high kicks and 24 of Joel's tunes. She creates sort of an emotive musical, without any of the dancers using their voices. Musicians, perched above the stage, play Joel's songs to create ambiance, while the dancers gyrate below.

In order to give the piece its due, Tharp took care to get the details right. "Vietnam veterans are kind of picky about that stuff, in movies particularly. You get some details wrong, and it kind of ruins it," Leepson explained.

Brendan King, who plays Eddie, was too young to know about Vietnam firsthand, like most of the members of the cast. In order to glean a thing or two about the experience of soldiers, Tharp gave the dancers a list of recommended reading and viewing. King went through the stack of videos and books that were stored in a spare dressing room. Tharp also brought in a member of the Green Berets for two days to teach the dancers how to move like soldiers.

"He put us through a mini boot camp. We had to learn how to about-face and left-face and how to hold a gun, how to make it look like you are holding a gun and not a piece of rubber, and make sure you are aiming correctly," King explained in his salty New Jersey accent. The dancers had to learn how to march to a call as well, which King found challenging. Instead of moving to the beat of the music, the dancers have to turn to the beat of the Green Beret's voice. Twyla wouldn't even let the dancers high-five, since that didn't make an appearance until the '80s.

Tharp initially made the piece because she felt badly that she hadn't done more during the original time period. She finished choreographing it on September 10, 2001. "I thought this was a chapter closed in our history. The irony is it was just reopening," she told Leepson.?

Movin' Out at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Through July 10. $21.25-$65.75.


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