Review: ILLINOISE at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Chicago premiere of contemporary dance show based on Sufjan Stevens’s ILLINOIS album runs through February 18, 2024

By: Feb. 05, 2024
Review: ILLINOISE at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

ILLINOISE is a journey through our great state of Illinois using movement. Directed and choreographed by Justin Peck and featuring music and lyrics from Sufjan Stevens’s ILLINOIS album, the show uses dance as its primary narrative language. Peck collaborated with playwright Jacke Sibblies Drury on a loose storyline for ILLINOISE, but that story is communicated entirely through dance. Stevens’s lyrics underscore the situations in the show and mirror the emotional shades of the choreography. 

I think it’s a misnomer that this piece is subtitled “a new kind of musical.” If audiences are expecting a traditional musical where the performers express their emotions simultaneously through song, dialogue, and dance, ILLINOISE will be confusing. Instead, it’s better to embrace this as a dance show with live music (vocalists Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viets-VanLear perform Sufjan’s songs — accompanied by a band of 14 musicians). I highly recommend that audiences listen to the album ILLINOIS before attending; I wished that we had supertitles for the lyrics throughout the evening, even though the focus is on the dance. The songs are more atmospheric than in a traditional musical, and thus, I found it was hard to understand many of the lyrics that were new to me. 

In terms of story, ILLINOISE loosely focuses on Henry, a young man going through a moment of fierce transition as he grapples with the shifting dynamics of his relationships with his childhood best friend Carl and his first adult love Douglas. Henry travels from New York City to the Midwest cornfields of Illinois, where he’s greeted by a group of friends at a campfire. Peck and Drury use the device of friends telling stories by this campfire to connect the different dance pieces. 

Peck’s choreography is gorgeous and fluid. While I’d categorize most of the dance as contemporary, Peck also artfully blends elements of ballet, tap, and hip-hop. The ensemble of 12 dancers are dazzling; audiences will be stunned by the grace and skill of Kara Chan, Ben Cook, Jeanette Delgado, Gaby Diaz, Robbie Fairchild, Christine Flores, Rachel Lockhart, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Byron Tittle, Ricky Ubeda, and Alejandro Vargas.

Ricky Ubeda takes on the role of protagonist Henry, which he performs beautifully. Ubeda is a master at expressing his character’s complex emotions through his dance movements. It’s gorgeous to watch. Ubeda’s well-matched by Ben Cook as Carl and Gaby Diaz as Shelby, Carl’s girlfriend. Cook and Diaz are stunning duet partners. 

Peck combines moments of light and shade throughout ILLINOISE; moments of uptempo joy and downtempo contemplation. A particularly joyful highlight is Robbie Fairchild (who I adored many years ago in his Broadway debut in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS) as Clark, the show’s Superman stand-in and dance soloist in “a story about The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.” Fairchild is an infectious and magnetic dancer who exudes glee with every dance step, and he clearly stole audience hearts. In a more sinister moment, Vargas is captivating as Wayne, a stand-in for the infamous clown-costumed serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. 

While ILLINOISE nicely blends these emotional variations, a darker patch in the show’s second act that relays Carl and Gaby’s tragic love story overstays its welcome. While Cook and Diaz are stunning dancers, the extended downtempo segment started to drag. I was excited when ILLINOISE came back to a more uptempo, rousing conclusion. 

ILLINOISE is a creative and unique contemporary dance show that displays Peck’s elegant artistry and showcases a gorgeous ensemble of dancers. I think this will easily appeal to contemporary dance lovers, but those seeking more standard musical theater fare might be baffled. 

ILLINOISE runs through February 18, 2024 in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue. Tickets are $57 - $135 and are mostly sold out for the run. 

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren