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By Deirdre Donovan



The Cast of Illinoise. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)


What better time to reimagine the American musical than now? On March 2, Illinoise, the theatrical adaptation of Grammy- and Oscar-nominated Sufjan Stevens' 2005 concept album Illinois, arrived at the Park Avenue Armory's capacious Wade Thompson Drill Hall as a new kind of musical. Whipped up to perfection by director-choreographer Justin Peck (Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, Carousel) and playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview Marys Seacole), it features live music and vocals, impressionistic choreography, and narratives focused on self-discovery and community.

Illinoise has a quintet of storytellers: Morgan (Rachel Lockhart), a griot who realizes that a family's lineage goes far beyond DNA; Jo Daviess (Jeanette Delgado), a historian and horror enthusiast whose unconventional perspective on the Founding Fathers is a bit macabre; Wayne (Alejandro Vargas), a poet and murder balladeer who revisits a story about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr.; Clark (Robbie Fairchild), a mentor and dreamer who recounts a tale about Superman, the man of Metropolis who goes out on a limb for his fellow man; Henry (Ricky Ubeda), a reluctant memoirist who ultimately shares a tragic tale of first love.

Robbie Fairchild (Photo: Stephanie Berger)


Although words are few in this musical, storytelling is writ large, with dance being front and center. Reportedly, Peck was inspired by the dramatic framework of the musical A Chorus Line in crafting Illinoise. To mirror the trajectory of this 1975 work, Peck wanted the 12 cast members in Illinoise to share their own stories, which they do in vivid detail.

The setting is the state of Illinois, referred to in the program as an "air-filled hard-to-reach place where individual people become a community by sharing their stories." During the 90-minute show, characters will criss-cross the state, traveling through ghost towns, past historic places linked to Abraham Lincoln, and straight on to Chicago.

The image of a campfire, which is achieved by the gathering together of several lantern-like lights, is key to this show. This simulated campfire allows both the onstage and offstage audience to lean in for a cozy storytelling experience. What's more, this outdoor hearth serves as a sacred symbol of the ancient tradition of sharing tales that goes all the way back to Homer.

Act I takes a deep dive into the unknown, as the first number, "Three Stars or Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois," wafts into the air. Inspired by the supposed sighting of a UFO in Highland, Illinois, on January 5, 2000, this song is truly out there:


"When the revenant came down
We couldn't imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form."

If this song is spooky, the number about Chicago-born John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the killer clown, is downright chilling. Stevens' lyrics eerily remind the audience that Gacy had quite a pleasant personality ("The neighbors, they adored him / For his humor and his conversation"). Still, Gacy raped, tortured, and killed at least 33 young men before his execution by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.

To offset this dark story, Act 1 closes out with "The Man of Metropolis." Robbie Fairchild, of course, is ideal as Clark who turns into Superman in a wink, with a red checkered tablecloth serving as his cape.

While all nine stories in Act II have their merit, no question that "Casimir Pulaski Day" tugged the hardest on one's heartstrings.After all, what could be sadder than a young woman dying of bone cancer? Stevens imbedded his Christian faith in the song s lyrics and how prayers are sometimes not answered:

"Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens."


Ricky Ubeda (left) and Ben Cook (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

In sharp contrast to this story is "The Seer's Tower," which dramatizes a young man's suicide. In this theatrical adaptation of the song, the suicidal young man is the lover of the young woman who died of cancer. What makes this vignette visually arresting is how the young man's contemplation of suicide off the "Seer's Tower" is manifested by showing several performers dressed in black robes who, one by one, jump off a make-shift tower on stage.

Fortunately, Act 3 invites the audience to return to a more optimistic outlook on life with a reprise of the centerpiece song, "Chicago," from Stevens' album:

"I fell in love again
All things go, all things go
Drove to Chicago
All things know, all things know."

This anthem of resilience was followed by "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders," with a clear nod to Carl Sandburg's muscular poetry.

The show fittingly wraps up with the Epilogue, "Out of Egypt," alluding to the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt to freedom, which by extension, applies to every human being who strives for liberty.

Illinoise is a boundary-blurring work, performed by virtuoso dancers, vocalists, and musicians, helmed and choreographed by Peck, alongside playwright Drury. Its folk narratives explore opposite- and same-sex relationships, self-discovery, the mystery of religion, mental illness, heroes, and more. The audience get an opportunity to see newly-minted dances that soar and yet are grounded in the traditions of tap, jazz, folk, and classical ballet.

The Armory, which is well-known for its crucial role in supporting unconventional works in the performing and visual arts, once again brings theatergoers a performance that defies category and pushes the theatrical envelope in a fresh new direction. Those who have the great good luck to see this stunning piece of dance theater will take away a memory that will last forever.



At the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, Manhattan.

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Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Through March 23.