‘Illinoise’ review: Exuberant adaptation blends the historical and the personal

Dancers use intricate physical motion to interpret Sufjan Stevens’ songs in “Illinoise” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Liz Lauren

There’s something very right about the fact that “Illinoise,” an exuberant, highly emotional, and essentially exquisite work of dance theater from director-choreographer Justin Peck premiering at Chicago Shakespeare on its way to a March run in New York, begins with its main character putting on shoes.

Peck, a millennial who became resident choreographer at New York City Ballet at a young age, is perhaps best known (in addition to winning the Tony Award for his work in the 2018 revival of “Carousel” and the choreography for Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story”) for his tendency to replace ballet shoes with everyday athletic footwear.

It means that his dancers don’t spend much time on their toes. With a certain amount of weight and detail of movement shifting further down the human body, his sneaker-ography comes across as grounded in more ways than one, and unquestionably more relatable.


‘Illinoise’ review

When: To Feb. 18

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave.

Tickets: $57-$135

Info: chicagoshakes.com

Running time: 1 hours and 30 minutes

 “Illinoise” is based on and features a live version of Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album of the same name (but with an extra “e” that was used in the album’s subtitle).

If Peck forced a sometimes-staid art form into the present, Stevens’ Prairie State-themed song suite infused indie singing-songwriting with the fullness of classical-sounding swells. These artists’ like-mindedness in blending the old into the new makes it easy to understand why they’ve collaborated before, and why Peck persisted in seeking Stevens’ permission to set this much-beloved album to movement.

“Illinoise” presents a live 14-member band above the stage, including three singers (with Stevens’ signature wings), providing a rich sound that feels immersive from the get-go. Meanwhile, the exceptional ensemble of classically trained dancers performs a story in two parts through intricate physical motion, contemporary but always ballet-informed, including pirouettes and arabesques. 

Stevens’ album mixed Land of Lincoln history and iconography with the deeply personal. The narrative here, with help from Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”) and a rearrangement of the original song sequence, finds clever ways to incorporate both, although not always at the same time. 

After our brief introduction to Henry (Ricky Ubeda) as he shoes up and kisses goodbye to his boyfriend (Ahmad Simmons), we join a group of writer-artists at a campground. The number “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” uses the entire ensemble to capture the spirit of optimism (references to the 1893 World’s Fair), and then turns to Henry, who steps forward as the song expresses his inner doubt: “Am I writing from the heart? Am I writing from the heart?”

Henry (Ricky Ubeda, foreground) sings his story to his artist friends (from left: Byron Tittle, Christine Flores and Kara Chan) in “Illinoise.”

Liz Lauren

The group begins to share stories around the fire, depicted minimally but caringly by Peck’s design team. We get four individual numbers:

“Jacksonville,” with Rachel Lockhart conjuring a history that expresses itself in rapid-fire tap from Byron Tittle.“They are Night Zombies! They Are Neighbors,” with Jeanette Delgado explaining American history through the use of — you guessed it — zombies, who stretch illogically in movement that’s both creepy and gorgeous.The most visually striking and disturbing moments of the entire show, the song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” with a deeply affecting ending thanks to Alejandro Vargas.And finishing with the lightest, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” a witty take on the Superman in everyday people led by Robbie Fairchild (Broadway’s “An American in Paris”).

After each story, the group looks to Henry, who finally agrees to expose his work, a memoir which forms the second half of the show. It’s a tale of growing up (“Decatur”), loving and maturing (the exhilarating “Chicago” and later “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out”), loss (“Casimir Pulaski Day”), and grief (“Seer’s Tower”). Ubeda evokes deep sympathy — his easy, everyman physicality is especially expressive — with Ben Cook and Gaby Diaz also capturing the psychic achiness of the tale.

Although the whole evening oozes an easygoing chic sophistication, this is a deeply complex piece, operating throughout at four different levels: the music, the lyrics (often in counterpoint to the music to begin with), the movement, and the new narrative. The first half — in short and independent bursts of varied moods and styles — has a buoyant energy. The second, beautiful as it is, starts to lag from stretches with slow and simple movement, evoking the weight of loss.

It’s really challenging when you take abstract art forms that don’t require logical explanation (dance, music, poetic lyrics) and impose on them a psychological narrative. The tug in the American theater is always towards a psychological realism, and you certainly feel that here.

Despite this slightly limiting sensibility and perhaps an under-focus on Stevens’ spiritual themes, this piece deserves a wide audience, even if given its formal uniqueness it shouldn’t be judged on its commercial reach. Although marketed as a “new kind of musical,” the genre here is clearly dance theater, a form that unfortunately isn’t as prevalent in the U.S. as it is in Europe (e.g. Nederlands Dans Theater) and even Canada (my favorite pandemic-fueled streaming discovery was choreographer Crystal Pite’s version of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Inspector General” called “Revisor”). 

Although its commercial fate may be unknowable, the artistic highs reach the super-heroic.

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