Friday, April 26, 2024

REVIEW: Illinoise

Review of the Wednesday, April 24, 2024 evening performance at the St. James Theatre in New York City. Featuring dancers Benjamin Cook, Gaby Diaz, Jeanette Delgado, Rachel Lockhart, Ahmad Simmons, Byron Tittle, Ricky Ubeda and Alejandro Vargas, and singers Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tash Viets-VanLear. Music and lyrics by Sufjan Stevens, based on his album Illinois. Story by Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury. Scenic design by Adam Rigg. Costume design by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Lighting design by Brandon Stirling Baker. Sound design by Garth MacAleavy. Orchestrations by Timo Andres. Choreography and direction by Justin Peck. 90 minutes, no intermission.

Illinoise is a rarity in my decades of theater-going experience. It not only lives up to its hype, it exceeds it. When it arrived at the St. James Theatre, the artform known as the Broadway musical changed forever. It has certainly expanded my sometimes stubborn mind to see things in fresh and unexpected ways. Here is a world where the familiar becomes mysterious, where the specificity of individuality unlocks the universality of the human experience, and where the senses blur just as the poetry, music and movement blur what a musical is. 

All of this brilliance comes from its source material, an album of genre-defying music by Sufjan Stevens, whose catalog is largely unfamiliar to me, save for his work on the soundtrack of Call Me By Your Name. A collection of songs, riffs and history (and everything in between) about the state of Illinois, the musical has transformed it into a beautifully rendered collection of stories told through dance and crafted into a magical piece of theater by book writer Jackie Sibblies Drury and creator of this work, Justin Peck. A celebration of community, of love and despair, of death and rebirth, the show tells of Henry, a lost and grieving young man who comes upon a group of storytellers who gather to express and explore the human experience. They tell stories that honor the past, offer a humorous take on American politics (with zombies, no less), a "Tale of John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," (danced ominously by Alejandro Vargas) that would please Sondheim and Fosse, and even a rumination on whether it is Superman or Clark Kent who is the real superhero 
(danced joyously by Brandt Martinez). Finally, it is Henry's turn to tell his story, and it is a sweeping, emotional, and ultimately thrilling tale of finding oneself, finding love, jealousy, anger, and the pain of profound loss, before finding oneself again. There are only words in the songs; not one word of dialog is spoken, and yet, this show may have the best book Broadway has seen in years.

Bringing Stevens' masterpiece to life starts with Timo Andres' stunning, vital orchestrations played by an onstage ensemble of musicians, each of whom play multiple instruments and provide occasional backing vocals. Under the sure and thoughtful hand of musical director/conductor/musician Nathan Koci, the score becomes the canvas upon which the dance becomes the paint. Coloring and framing that canvas is the brilliant lighting design of Brandon Stirling Baker (whose use of stadium lighting and handheld orbs is next level) and the simple, yet striking scenic design of Adam Rigg
Garth MacAleavy's sound design is perfection, while the costume design by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung is deceptively simple in its delicate balance of meeting the needs of the story and the demands of the rigorous choreography.

Director/choreographer Justin Peck is certainly not resting on his Tony-winning laurels here. Every movement - large and small, soloist and full company - is so meticulously planned in service of the story, one might expect a so well-executed series of numbers to lose a bit of emotional weight (I'm thinking of Hamilton here). This work is anything but that. It is so organic and so personal to each dancer, that even when they create tableau after tableau in perfect synchronicity, you feel a heady mix of emotions always. Using a vast mix of styles - from above-standard Broadway, to contemporary and ballet - Peck's stamp is all over this, but never once does it get repetitious. A big highlight early on is a show stopping number that combines the youth of hip-hop (danced by the beautifully energetic Rachel Lockhart) with the sage precision of old school tap dancing (danced by the remarkable Byron Tittle). Mr. Peck has assembled a glorious company of dancers who make their joy and passion palpable for 90 minutes.

There are three principal vocalists (Shara Nova, Tasha Viets-Vanlear and Elijah Lyons) who give us the words to go with action, and their stylings are an exquisite match for each and every mood the score demands. They are as much a part of this campfire community as the dancers. In fact, so much so that they are named after different moths to match the moth wings each wears. They are figuratively moths to a flame and symbolically represent what moths do throughout history and literature: life, change, transformation, death, and rebirth.

There are four principal dancers who tell the majority of the story, and sure, they shine as a cohesive mini-ensemble, but it is the gifts that they bring to the piece as individuals that makes this show the truly special thing that it is. I won't tell you why they are important as you really need to experience it for yourself, but here goes... Ahmad Simmons (Douglas) is a quiet tower of strength, athletic and elegant. Gaby Diaz (Shelby) is a feather in the wind, gracefully, silently, tragically, whirling about the stage. Ben Cook (Carl), youthful and exuberant, is charisma personified, and a flawless combination of his three co-stars all at once. But as the lead of the whole thing, it is Ricky Ubeda 
(Henry) who captivates whether he is center stage or mixed in with the ensemble. He so bravely and unselfishly bares his soul through his dancing; not a single person in the packed house could be untouched by the feelings he was emitting. 

Technically a "jukebox" musical, I dare say this has safely and confidently turned that sub-genre on its ear, and expanded the definition by leaps and bounds. I've admitted before that I've grown weary of such endeavors, but this really is a gorgeous, ravishing game changer. A new bar has been set. I say this with all sincerity: nothing I could possibly write about Illinoise could do it justice. Here is art that demands to be seen felt by all of the senses.

📸: M. Murphy

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