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Rob Weinert-KendtMarch 13, 2024
Byron Tittle and Robbie Fairchild in “Illinoise” at Park Avenue Armory (photo: Stephanie Berger)Byron Tittle and Robbie Fairchild in “Illinoise” at Park Avenue Armory (photo: Stephanie Berger)

What can dance say? As a kind of illustrated music, it can do many of the things only music is able to do—i.e., express feelings that are beyond mere words, and touch us in places a conventional narrative can’t. Because it is embodied, dance can also show us our own humanity, often in idealized, abstracted or deconstructed forms. But can it tell a story?

“Illinoise,” the new dance-theater piece by choreographer Justin Peck, now at the Park Avenue Armory through March 26, offers a compelling answer. The show is on one level a staging of singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album “Illinois.” (The show’s title picked up that extra “e” from the album’s cover art, which reads, “Come on feel the Illinoise.”) But given that Stevens’s record is a nesting doll of characters, ideas and historical references, with a smattering of autofiction, there is no easy way to reimagine it as a stage work, à la The Who’s “Tommy” (now back on Broadway, incidentally), or to fashion it into a jukebox musical about the singer’s life and career, à la “Jersey Boys” or “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”

What Peck, collaborating with playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury and arranger Timo Andres, has done instead is hand-craft a hybrid work as bespoke as Stevens’s carefully composed album. With a dance ensemble of 12 and a band of 14, including three vocalists, Peck and Drury envision a troupe of young backpackers gathering around a campfire by a cornfield, trading stories from their journals in the form of dances to the band’s accompaniment. These episodes vary in quality and interest, until eventually the complicated multi-city journey of one of their cohorts, Henry, takes centerstage and threads its way to the end of the show.

With his five-o’clock shadow and sensitive face, Ricky Ubeda’s Henry is an uncanny stand-in for songwriter Stevens. Henry’s narrative encompasses a road trip with a small-town friend, Carl (Ben Cook), to the soaring strains of the song “Chicago”; the untimely death of their mutual hometown friend, Shelby (Gaby Diaz), in the heart-rending “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which in turn leads Carl to suicide in “The Seer’s Tower”; and a romance with an architect in New York City, Douglas (Ahmad Simmons), woven through several songs in the show’s second half.

By the time the show reaches its joyful culmination with the polyrhythmic “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” “Illinoise” has grown into something more than a concert dance—not quite a musical, exactly, but something uniquely theatrical and moving, in both the literal and emotional senses.

The show takes a slightly bumpy road to that gratifying conclusion. Some early numbers are all too faithful to the twee quirks of the original record. In staging the song with the exhausting title “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!,” Peck makes poor Jeanette Delgado run strenuously in place from a horde of masked historical monsters. A similar literalism dooms the staging of “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”; the song constitutes the record’s boldest act of radical empathy, for the serial killer who lured boys to their grisly deaths, but it is rendered bathetic here. Ditto the dorky Superman imagery of the head-banger “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.”

On the other hand, “Jacksonville” showcases a thrilling duet between Rachel Lockhart and Bryon Tittle, the latter in clattering tap shoes that add a percussive frisson to the song’s slow-boiling chamber pop. Strikingly, Tittle is also decked out in a suit and bow tie, in contrast to the 2000s-era shabby chic of the rest of the cast—a callback that maps subtly but unmistakably onto the song’s lyrics, which give an impressionistic history of the town of the title. Jacksonville, Ill., encapsulates a telling irony of American history: though named for a slave-owning president, it was a major outpost on the Underground Railroad.

Geographical specificity is otherwise not a strong suit, nor is it really the point, of the show. Like Sufjan’s record, “Illinoise” is less about the Midwest per se than it is about America itself, or rather, America through the eyes of confused, searching millennials. I’m not sure Sufjan Stevens could quite be called the voice of his generation—his music has never had a broad enough reach to claim that—but he definitely has given voice to the anxieties and yearning of young people who watched a world lurch past the trauma of 9/11 into war, who have faced a landscape of diminished expectations and rising inequality, and who have half-embraced cosmopolitan rootlessness and technological futurism with an admirable mix of resourcefulness and creativity.

Stevens’s artistic response to the millennial quandary has been to craft music both tense and tender, meticulous and anarchic, quasi-classical in its shape and folk-rock in its sound. It is done fabulous justice by the show’s band and three vocalists, here led by conductor Nathan Koci (whose textured work was similarly crucial to Broadway’s stripped-down “Oklahoma!” in 2018).

At its best, “Illinoise” vibrates on the music’s gently intense wavelength, albeit in a different medium. Peck’s choreography matches the songs’ range with moves as grounded as they are sinuous. Especially haunting are a series of controlled falls and missed connections, in which dancers intend to embrace or collide but don’t. While it can be hard to parse every turn in the dialogue-free scenario that playwright Drury has concocted, the show has a clear build and structure, defined as much by ensemble movement as by song form.

“Are you writing from the heart?” goes the refrain of an early song. “Illinoise” never answers this directly, but its concluding image—of Henry’s journal, fixed in a spotlight and offered as a gift to the audience—can be read clearly: This show’s heart is an open book.

Correction, March 14: The NYC architect who has a romance with the character of Henry is Douglas, played by Ahmad Simmons.

More: Theater / Music

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