Illinoise review

Illinoise review

Illinoise Review - Broadway musical

The 2005 indie folk concept album "Illinois" is whimsical, earnest, and sorrowful in equal measures, weaving back and forth between events and figures from Illinois history, from UFO sightings to Pullman cars, the World's Fair of 1893, and the Lincoln/Douglas debates, with many stops along the way to make Biblical allusions and note feelings of shame and loss. This multi-faceted mix, indeed stirring and intriguing for most of the listen, is not a logical choice for a narrative work of art, yet Justin Peck managed to devise, direct, and choreograph a 90-minute dance theater piece on it that will remain indelible in recent history as one of the most singular productions.

Billed as "a new Broadway musical," the work raises genre questions. The songs drive the story, but they're all sung by band members, while the cast consists entirely of dancers. In some respects, "Illinois" rides the wave of two other shows this season: "Hell's Kitchen," driven by Keys's catalog and inspired by her life, and "The Heart of Rock and Roll," a jukebox musical about Huey Lewis. In this, there's also an echo of the 2002 musical "Movin' Out," which used Billy Joel's songs to tell its story through dance. Besides being, like "Illinois," primarily dance theater, it differs for its faithfulness to the source material, not only as a source of but as the object of art to be preserved in the deal.

Unlike most of the jukeboxes put together since, say, the invention of recorded music—combining songs from different places and times on recordings rarely conceived as discrete units—"Illinoise," like its predecessor, makes room for the concept album. If something like Green Day's "American Idiot" went outside its central album to import themes that it felt that it needed for total adequacy, this narrower-scope model allows for even more perverse theatricality—few albums, though, would be quite as ideally suited to such an attack. (Think Lorde's "Melodrama.")

Nearly all of the 22 tracks on "Illinois" are there in some way but have been cut, reordered, and reorganized to suit an overarching narrative of the piece that Peck developed with playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury ("Fairview"). Now, "Illinois" melds into the tale of Henry, danced by Ricky Ubeda, who gathers in the field with a flock of strangers sharing stories, sort of an impromptu group therapy session. Storytelling emerges as the chief device of the piece: stories we tell to others, stories we tell to ourselves, the way we re-tell our own stories, and, yes, what power storytelling can have in a kind of emotional release, both for those on stage and for us who sit in the audience.

While the majority of the play focuses on Henry and his tale of his two deceased friends, Carl (Ben Cook) and Shelby (Gaby Diaz), the production is divided into three "acts," and these flashbacks are merely the second. The first determines the cast and is comprised of four songs, all of which bear the title "a story" ("Jacksonville," "Zombies," "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "The Man of Metropolis"). The ballads do not add to the overall arc of the work on Henry. Through that, the storytelling motif is slightly cheapened, almost used as a convenient structural device to fit in songs that Peck and Drury could not work within Henry's story. (They also did not manage to include any exploration of religion.) After Henry finishes his extended story — told over nine songs, including the beloved “Chicago” — the brief final act returns to the group for a euphoric conclusion.

The second act is the real heart of the show. It tells of best friends Henry, Carl, and Shelby, whose tight bond is complicated by varying feelings of romance, not always reciprocated. It later on is eviscerated by death from cancer and suicide. Cook and Diaz have captured the youthful spirit exquisitely, as well as their characters' sublime agony and suffering. Brandt Martinez is a most able captain of the raconteur's troupe (if slightly less charismatic than Robbie Fairchild, who led the show when it was revived at Park Avenue Armory). Dancing amongst the throng, Alejandro Vargas, Jeanette Delgado, and tap-dancing Byron Tittle stand out most for performances bursting with such life, energy, and expressive movement. As the protagonist, Ubeda dances with tender skill, capturing the high emotional peaks of the piece.

To some degree, the piece relies on autobiographical material, even though Henry and his lover Douglas (Ahmad Simmons) are obliquely modeled on Stevens and his former partner Evans Richardson. The three singers (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viet-VanLear) don Stevens's stage trademark insect wings, which he frequently wears in concert. In theory, the dancers are the main attraction, but the vocalists are necessary and share in the glory and art of the performance. Lyons is the musical center, and his vocal cords span an astounding range that includes a tender falsetto that takes the listener's breath away. Two with an affectingly rare sound are Nova, whose two solos— "Seer's Tower" and "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." — are heartbreakingly beautiful; on these, she does more than the background-singer thing and gives a full-faced acting performance. Viet-VanLear supplies a smooth vocal blend that unites the distinctive voices of Lyons and Nova.

"Illinois," among countless other things, is a fantastic Stevens music concert. The original recording is essentially an impressively eclectic orchestration that may include anything from piano, guitar, and drums to flute, accordion, trumpet, violin, banjo, organ, vibraphone, and on. Timo Andres' orchestrations and arrangements allow those sounds and textures to combine with complex three-part vocals, melding into something that feels at once familiar yet new, building upon the original. Similarly, sound designer Garth MacAleavey has worked some aural wizardry with the score to make it feel RAZOR-edged, resonant, and pixelated. Adam Rigg's set —an upside-down pine forest, a wheat field, and an industrial space (wonderfully lit by Brandon Stirling Baker)— heavily utilizes both the vocalists and the musicians, giving them equal footing with the dancers on stage. And Peck's choreography is both brilliant and poignant. Some of these dance motifs give a feeling of repetition, which is another allusion to the concept of memory and haunting. Sometimes these are connected with the characters like the balance beam swaggering and swaying of Carl and Henry or the side-to-side swing-inspired dance and handshake of Henry, Carl, and Shelby. While Peck's choreography remains distinctly modern, his ballet background informs the work with long-line leg extensions at classic angles and a flurry of precisely-spotted spins and turns.

At times, the choreography can become frustratingly literal, as when Henry holds a steering wheel for all of "Chicago," a chemotherapy IV-drip is brought out at the start of "Casimir Pulaski Day," or when a dancer ominously points to a Sears Tower poster in "Seer's Tower." For an entirely instrumental dance piece, this might have been helpful, but because we have lyrics, it is entirely unnecessary to literalise them in this way, and the whole thing starts to feel like Peck doesn't entirely trust the audience to follow. Raison d'être of interpretive dance, theoretically, is to push back on the literal and be, as such, interpretive, take liberties, and find more profound meaning. The choreography for the songs treated as "stories" stays at surface level, with dancers portraying zombies, a soloist in a clown outfit murdering people, and Superman shirts—all without fully mining the deep and symbolic meanings of the songs.

There are, however, a few brilliant moments where Peck's choreography becomes more interpretive. In "Decatur" and "Seer's Tower," he mostly eschews the lyrics, taking in the thematic content of each song, with the former lovingly sad as it takes in the trio's bond and the latter an unsettling depiction of suicidality where Carl's dark thoughts are anthropomorphized by the dancers, who, one by one, gradually, leaping off a high platform. Though it's a little odd that Peck has "Predatory Wasp" as a duet between Henry and Douglas about an incident with Carl, and ends with Henry getting a panic attack triggered by a memory of that critical moment when he kissed Carl, rupturing their friendship. Douglas then calming him down and helping him breathe in a violin-scored, three-sided rhumba. Indeed, this is one of the most poignant moments in the work, where queerly unique trauma is so vividly staged. It features a gut-wrenching arrangement, with Lyon's upper register pleading that he "meant no harm" and asserting, over and over, "we were in love."

The occasional literalness of the choreography is not to my taste, but Peck's work is undeniably beautiful and flawlessly executed by the phenomenally gifted cast of dancers. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung costume the performers in a series of crop tops, baggy trousers, and other items that give them the appearance of a fantastic Brooklyn vintage store. They are individualized and given their chances to sparkle and beautifully entwine, most notably in their repeated action of resetting the space with the use of a group of lanterns to suggest a symbolic campfire.

The ensemble joins in one spirited moment of singing in "Man of the Metropolis," which features a repeated line as a kind of mantra for the group and a central message to the show: "We celebrate our sense of each other. We have so much to offer each other." ''Illinoise'' is cathartic in and of itself, the audience watching Henry rehash through painful memories, work through shame and regret, and join together with a community for a collective process, mourning and moving. But then, as promised in the opening salvo ''Chicago'' all things go, all things grow.

None of this resembles standard Broadway pabulum, but again, that's why it is so essential to experience. "Illinoise," though based on pre-existing material, was an artifact, entirely new, that it verged on blurring what the new kind of art could be on Broadway. As the final lyric urges us, let's "celebrate the few, celebrate the new, it can only start with you."
Last Update:June, 05th 2024

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