Getting Into The Role

March 02, 2006|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN ARTS WRITER

Just like Tony, the character he portrays in Movin' Out, Keith Roberts is getting to know the stranger in himself.

Mostly, he likes who he finds. Not always, though.

"There are times when I'm dancing when I stop being myself and start becoming the character," Roberts says.

"I start becoming whoever I'm dancing at the time. I become anybody but me. I get to put all my issues aside and work through other issues that never would crop up in my life. It's a great escape, really."

It must be. He's spent four years perfecting the role.

Roberts, 36, originated Tony in the Broadway run of the 2002 musical that was choreographed by Twyla Tharp and is based on two dozen of Billy Joel's hit songs.

Now, he's performing Tony in the national tour, which stops at the Hippodrome Theatre on Tuesday for a two-week run.

Movin' Out is about four high school friends whose lives are torn asunder by the Vietnam War. The story is told exclusively through song and movement and without dialogue.

Roberts used his childhood experiences as the son of a career military officer to prepare the role.

"I was an Army brat and I lived on military bases, so I grew up with a lot of respect for our armed forces," he says.

In addition, he studied footage of the war at New York's Museum of Television and Radio and was struck by the images of the frightened and bewildered recruits.

"Those kids were so young and skinny and confused," he says. "They didn't know what they were getting into."

Not that that's always bad. Roberts has spent a lifetime seeking out tough new challenges.

From 1987 to 1999, he danced with the American Ballet Theatre, arguably the nation's premier classical dance troupe. He had risen to the rank of principal when he decided to quit.

"I had done everything I wanted to do in ballet, and I wanted to try something different," he says. "I didn't know what that might be, but I thought I might as well jump off a cliff and see where I land."

The next day, the famed choreographer Ann Reinking called and offered Roberts a role as a featured dancer in her new musical, Fosse.

Though he occasionally had danced in a modern idiom at ABT - where he performed Tharp's works, among others - Roberts had to adapt his body to a different way of moving.

"Ballet is lighter and more centered," he says. "Modern dance is weightier and more grounded into the floor."

Following a stint touring with Tharp's company, Roberts was offered the role of Tony in Movin' Out, a show that places increased demands on Roberts' acting skills.

"It's a complete acting challenge, and it was one of the hardest aspects for me in the show," he says.

Especially difficult were the scenes in which Tony, who has been traumatized by the war, lashes out at the woman he loves.

"He's somewhat abusive, and trying to figure out that one was a real stretch," Roberts says. "That's something that I would never do. I had to figure out how to find the capacity for that violence in myself and not hate myself for it."

The payoff is that in some performances, Roberts experiences moments of genuine redemption.

As he puts it: "The show has taught me to say, `OK, life is hard, but it's worth doing. It has its rewards, and you have to take them as they come.'"

"Movin' Out" is at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St., Tuesday through March 19. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $31 to $76. Call 410-547-SEAT or visit broadwayacrossamerica.com.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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