Review: ILLINOISE is Storytelling at its Very Finest

Justin Peck’s dance-musical, based on Sufjan Steven’s 2005 concept album, is a tender, thoughtful and daringly original take on how stories both playful and painful can create connection.

By: Mar. 20, 2024
Review: ILLINOISE is Storytelling at its Very Finest
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Illinoise is, at its core, a story about stories, both the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we’re brave enough to share with others. 

It’s an intriguing premise for a show that features neither dialogue nor song. Performed at the Park Avenue Armory March 02-26 before transferring to Broadway this April, the dance-musical hybrid -- created through a collaboration between famed choreographer Justin Peck and the Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury -- is told through 12 dancers and a live performance of Sufjan Stevens' 2005 concept album by an 11-member band and three vocalists. 

Peck’s witty and whimsical choreography, set to Stevens’ soaring, 80s cinema-style melodies and framed by Drury’s tender and intimate narrative, bypasses the trite trappings of big Broadway musicals or three-act plays to make Illinoise one of the decade’s most daringly original takes on the familiar concepts of friendship, love, grief and coming of age. 

Review: ILLINOISE is Storytelling at its Very Finest The story unfolds beside a campfire where 12 friends have gathered, away from phones or screens, to share stories both playful and painful. As each friend begins to tell their tale, the piece assumes an almost confessional-style atmosphere where vulnerability, angst and identity collide. Each story brims with the introspective questioning inherent in young adulthood, when the world is a scary thing that must be explored by wandering the margins of one’s own mind. 

Morgan, played by Rachel Lockhart, begins the storytelling with a riotous romp through past lives. In “Jacksonville,” Lockhart melds grace with grit as her character attempts to understand her lineage. On her journey, Morgan encounters a tap-dancing ancestor, played by Byron Tittle. Not only is Tittle’s moment the best insertion of tap dance in an art piece, possibly ever, but his raw athleticism and Lockhart’s gentle grooviness are an auspicious start to the anthology about to unfold. 

“Zombies,” the most creatively risky story in Illinoise, comes about 30 minutes into the 90 minute show. Part campfire horror story and part cultural commentary, the piece takes audiences on a journey through America’s past where undead political figures -- from Thomas Jefferson to Jerry Falwell to Ronald Reagan -- wreak havoc on Jeanette Delgado’s Jo Daviess. Perhaps we're meant to feel as if America’s past is haunting us, or maybe that, when it comes to politics, we’re all the living dead? Absent such scrutiny, however, the piece is a Halloween-style masquerade as the dancers move, Thriller-esque, through a stage bathed in an eerie green-black graveyard glow. 

Former New York City Ballet Principal, Robbie Fairchild, shifts the tone from creepy to whimsical in “The Man of Metropolis.” Fairchild plays Clark, a man-child, who imagines himself, literally, as the Man of Steel. In a Superman shirt, Fairchild’s prowess is on full display as he deftly explores what it means to be strong and masculine, yet also vulnerable. It is both a cute and poignant transition to Henry’s far darker story. 

Review: ILLINOISE is Storytelling at its Very Finest Henry, who must be gently cajoled into sharing his story, is from “nowhere” USA, a small town resplendent with midwestern Americana. Henry, played by Ricky Urbeda, of stage and So You Think You Can Dance fame, has a dark, yet hopeful coming-of-age story. Partly set to one of the more well-known Stevens’ tracks, “Chicago,” Henry and his best friend, Carl, played brilliantly by Ben Clark, embark on a journey from their small town to New York City. Their journey, expertly staged against a graffitied wall and the bare bones, sleeping-on-the-floor ethos of a first city apartment, is buddy-comedy turned rom-com that, later, is tainted by a sudden heartbreak. Carl is lost to a grief that becomes his undoing, setting Henry on a path that brings him to the campfire where he must tell his story in order to truly be at peace with his past. 

Illinoise may be a masterclass in storytelling, but it’s also a choreographic feat. The light, airy quality to Peck’s distinctive style of dance grounds the myriad emotions so that each story, or dance, always feels connected. Having that throughline is what catapults Illinoise from a dance show to an immersive theater experience full of authentic sights and sounds. Set design from Adam Rigg includes upside-down evergreen trees hung from the rafters and a corn field that appears to stretch on, infinite, to the back of the stage. Even the vocalists -- Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viets-VanLear -- wear butterfly wings to take part in the symbolic sense of rebirth that happens as each character tells their story. The show is sensory overload in the best way, with the mood changing as quickly as Brandon Stirling Baker’s lighting design can cast a bright glow or descend into total darkness. Each character is also distinct, so much so that dancers with multiple roles are not easily distinguishable; deftly transforming into grim reapers, clowns and even, at one point, a pay phone, with the help of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s costume design.

In our era of reboots and restagings, Illinoise is not only a refreshing examination of what it means to be human, but the first truly unique take on the jukebox musical and the first successful iteration of a dance-driven theatrical story. Rather than having the music overpower the dance, or the story disappearing into a muddied interpretive dance, Illinoise perfectly combines every element. It’s a testament to Nathan Koci’s deft musical direction and the vocalists’ raw performance that, when the dancers take their bows and the lights dim, the last moments of the show feel like closing the book on one story just to begin a new one. 

Perhaps that new story is about how Illinoise is not just a show, but a place we have all been, and somewhere we could all go again, to be heard.