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  • Angela Allyn

Brilliant Illinoise at Chicago Shakespeare defies categorization

It’s an evening length ballet, a jukebox musical, a concert and an opera.  Illinoise, conceived by Justin Peck as a way to reimagine Sufjan Stevens iconic 2005 album Illinois, is all that and more: it feels like a fitting future for live performance forms, and you need to see it before it heads to New York because I have a hunch it will be there for a while.  

Peck is a Tony award winning choreographer, director and filmmaker and the acting resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet but the thrilling dancing in this show is decidedly not ballet: it plays with gravity and features a pedestrian aesthetic and percussive gestural patterns with sweeping turns and a vocabulary that draws a lot more from clubs than from the concert stage. And there is a tap number! This show is wall to wall dancing: we could call this an evening length dance work populated by an ensemble that looks like regular people you want to hang out with.  Peck’s choreographic architecture has satisfying unison sections, lovely lifts and arresting group compositions. It would be an award winning dance show if that’s all that it was. 

But there is MORE–there is the music: the haunting, moving words and melodies of Stevens which are an impressionistic collection of eclectic auditory postcards of the state.  There is only music; no spoken dialogue as if it is an opera, for even a music show by a band has patter. Here we have sheer music.  And such music: lushly orchestrated, beautifully realized by an 11 person band and three musician vocalists: Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-VanLear. They take us on an emotional journey with stops ranging from the ballad of John Wayne Gacy to a Superman bit and then Chicago– an anthem of coming into self knowledge. I wish I could go home and play the original cast album side by side with Stevens original to marinate myself in this melodic great lake– I am sure that cast album is to come. 

The work has a circular structure where we return to where we started after a night of story telling : there is a visual device of gathering around a campfire and each character “reads” from a journal and tells their story with gestures and physical expressions.  Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury are credited with the libretto, and it is a visual one, and in that aspect the show is delightful: Adam Riggs scenic design linked with an immersive lighting design by Brandon Stirling Baker and the colorful costumes of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung make the evening an ever changing experience of eyeball candy. 

Illinoise,  only at Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Yard space on Navy Pier Tuesdays through Sundays through February 18 with some shows already sold out, is an evocative must see production, a groundbreaking experience in live theater which adapts an original piece into a multidimensional universe that is refreshing and eloquent. 

Photo by Liz Lauren

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