Review: Chicago Shakespeare’s Illinoise Inspires, Electrifies
Maybe one of the essential hallmarks of truly great art is the way it inspires others to produce creative efforts of their own. And that is nowhere more true than in the American musical theater: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet brought us West Side Story; Shaw's Pygmalion planted the seed for My Fair Lady; and Seurat's pointillist masterpiece (and the Art Institute's hometown favorite) A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte? Well—I guess I don't have to say what show that inspired.
And that brings us to Sufjan Stevens' 2005 indie earthquake, Illinois—a low-fi sonic boom of an album whose shockwaves still reverberate today. By turns playful, wistful, soulful and doleful, Illinois was only the second installment (after Michigan) of a quickly abandoned 50-state album project that Stevens now says was mostly a prank. But Illinois is no mere joke; it is a work of a fully realized singer-songwriter genius that explores the history, culture and people of our Prairie State with poetic lyrics and eclectic style. From an alien visitation ("Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois") to a lament for a young friend dying of bone cancer ("Casimir Pulaski Day'), the album strikes every chord of the human experience. And so does this show, now on stage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Although billed as a "new kind of musical," the show isn't really that, despite the excellent 14 musicians and three singers who are perched above the stage in a sort of angelic scaffolding (complete with angel wings for the singers). And neither is it a ballet—although its story is completely told through the thrilling dancing of the cast: a kaleidoscope of movement bridging the dance styles of the past 80 years. As uncategorizable as the album that inspired it, Chicago Shakespeare's Illinoise needs to be experienced—perhaps more than once—for its many layers to unfold.
That multifaceted marvelousness is due to the brilliance of Stevens' music and lyrics, yes... and to the exhilarating talent of the dancers and musicians, certainly... but perhaps uniquely, this complex show owes its power and beauty to the creative mind of Tony-Award-winning director and choreographer Justin Peck.
Peck, the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet, has created more than 50 dance pieces for various companies around the world, and has collaborated with many prominent artists—among them Steven Spielberg. Illinoise marks the fourth collaboration between Stevens and Peck—a partnership that extends back to 2012 and The Year of the Rabbit. In this production, the duo present some of their finest work—creating a captivating emotional experience for the audience, by deftly blending movement, melody and message.
In collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winner Jackie Sibbles Drury, who constructed the show's story, Illinoise follows Henry (Ricky Ubeda), a young writer who leaves his boyfriend (Ahmad Simmons) in New York to join a group of artists on a camping trip in Illinois. Around a campfire, the group share stories inspired by Stevens' songs (rearranged from the order they appear in the album), such as serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., Superman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Chicago World's Fair. Through these encounters, the initially reluctant Henry opens up to share his own story. and—eventually—invite the audience to share theirs.
Illinoise is scheduled to make its New York debut in early March. Don't miss your chance to experience this remarkable show while it is still here in town, through February 18 in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. The show is 90 minutes long, with no intermission. Tickets are available at www.chicagoshakes.com.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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