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Illinoise

Justin Peck’s evening length ballet created to the acclaimed 2005 "Illinois" studio album of Sufjan Stevens, has the energy of Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” and the storytelling vibe of Twyla Tharp’s "Movin’ Out."

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Ricky Ubeda (center) and the company of Justin Peck’s “Illinoise” at the Park Avenue Armory (Photo credit: Stephanie Berger)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

Justin Peck’s evening length ballet, Illinoise, created to the acclaimed 2005 Illinois studio album of Sufjan Stevens, has the energy of Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” and the storytelling vibe of Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out. It also has the youthful rebelliousness of such landmark musicals as HAIR and Rent. While there is no dialogue in this dance theater piece, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) has fashioned a story from the song lyrics on the 22 track album along with Peck. Stevens’ music runs the gamut from folk, to rock, to pop, to classical, jazz and Broadway, but never feels like it is not part of a unified whole.

Illinoise is performed by 12 dancers from the ballet, Broadway, So You Think You Can Dance, and three who appeared in the last Broadway revival of Carousel for which Peck won the Tony Award for Best Choreography. Three vocalists, Shara Nova, on electric guitar, who also appeared on the original album and the national tour, Tasha Viets-VanLear on electric guitar, and Elijah Lyons, on keyboard, are responsible for the songs that along with the dance create the story.

Perched on two balconies one on each side of Adam Rigg’s unit set, they are dressed in butterfly wings, a tribute to those worn by the band on the album’s national tour. They’re backed up by an 11 piece band led by Nathan Koci which gives the score a big, lush orchestral sound. Aside from the songs, the orchestral interludes on the album are presented live for the first time. Rigg’s set also includes a giant billboard above the balcony (where the musicians sit) which often lists the names of the songs as if they were roadside advertisements.

Ricky Ubeda and Ben Cook in a scene from Justin Peck’s “Illinoise” at the Park Avenue Armory (Photo credit: Stephanie Berger)

The plot can be pieced together from both the character list and the musical numbers. In a prologue, Henry, a gay young man, is seen asleep with his lover Douglas, a somewhat older gay New Yorker. The story then flashes back to Henry’s youth in a small town in Illinois where his best friend is Carl.  Carl has a girlfriend Shelby, but keeps her at arm’s length. Carl and Henry decide to go on a trip around the United States, visiting places in Illinois which include Chicago and then culminate in going on to New York City. When Carl is called home due to Shelby’s newly diagnosed serious illness, Henry chooses to remain in NYC where he has met Douglas.

At some point Henry decides he must find himself and returns to Illinois where he joins up with a group of hikers who spend their evenings gathered around a campfire telling (that is, dancing) stories they have written. Henry is given a notebook and it is suggested that he try telling his story which he declines. After the storytellers Morgan, a griot, dances to “Jacksonville,” Jo Daviess, an historian,  to “They Are Night Zombies!,” Wayne, a poet,  to “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” and Clark, a mentor, to “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” Henry tells his story. This part is apparent inspired by A Chorus Line in which participants step forward, recount their stories, and then step back to their place in line; here their place in the semi-circle around the campfire.

Drury’s story takes its cues from the lyrics: Henry is given his notebook to the line “Are you still writing from the heart?” from “Come On! Feel the Illinoise! Part II – Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream,” while Shelby’s illness is presaged by the reference to “cancer of the bone” in “Casimir Pulaski Day.” She also keeps all the allusions to famous Illinois figures as well as not so well-known places and Illinois history.

Byron Tittle and Robbie Fairchild in a scene from Justin Peck’s “Illinoise” at the Park Avenue Armory (Photo credit: Stephanie Berger)

The multi-talented cast members each demonstrate a different quality. As Henry, Ricky Ubeda (2014 winner of So You Think you Can Dance and Peck’s Carousel in 2018 and Indio in Ivo van Hove’s West Side Story), is a brooding, searching presence who commands a great deal of sympathy both as a searcher and lonely gay man. Ben Cook (Riff in van Hove’s West Side Story) is a more extroverted and gregarious character though he turns out to have a dark side as well. Gaby Diaz (Stephen Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story) as Shelby is the woman who does not get her man. As Henry’s first adult love Douglas, Ahmad Simmons (Peck’s Carousel; Diesel in van Hove’s West Side Story; Ben Vereen in the TV series Fosse/Verdon) exudes a noble self-effacing quality.

Among the story tellers, Rachel Lockhart (Season 17 of So You Think You Can Dance and the Metropolitan Opera’s production of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X) burns up the stage in her rendition of “Jacksonville.” Playing both Clark and the leader of the hiking group, Robbie Fairchild, the most well-known dancer in the company and former star of the New York City Ballet as well as a 2025 Tony Award nominee for his role as Jerry Mulligan in the Broadway version of An American in Paris),  has been given the showiest dancing and his exuberance is infectious as he leaps about the stage to “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” and other musical numbers.

Composer Timo Andres, who has worked with Sufjan Stevens before has created the sparkling new music arrangements and orchestrations. The colorful, youthful and casual costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung are reminiscent of those worn in HAIR and Rent, though up to date here. Famed designer Julian Crouch is responsible for the masks worn in the Zombie number. Special commendation goes to sound designer Garth MacAleavey for the crystal clear sonic soundscape that accompanies Peck’s choreography.

The company of Justin Peck’s “Illinoise” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Photo credit: Liz Lauren)

While Illinoise does not seem bigger than its individual parts nor transcend them, it is both satisfying and moving. Peck’s inventive and derivative choreography at the same time seems to pay homage to his teachers and sources but also is in his own style. Some will find Illinoise an emotional experience; others will be impressed by the vigor and high spirits of the dancers and singers. Several of the dancers should become much better known through their roles in this work. Last but not least, Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 score is remarkable in its continued vitality after all these years.

Illinoise (through March 26, 2024; moving to the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street, on April 24 – Aug. 10, 2024)

Park Avenue Armory

Wade Thompson Drill Hall, 643 Park Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-933-5812 or visit http://www.ArmoryOnPark.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (991 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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