May 30, 2024

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An animated Broadway show about love, loss, and dance

An animated Broadway show about love, loss, and dance

Johnny Oleksinski

stage

Theater review

illinois

1 hour and 30 minutes without a break. St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street

“Illinois,” which opened Thursday at the St. James Theater, is the closest Broadway has ever come to showing an independent film on stage.

A wistful, joyful hipster fantasy told mostly in an enchanting dance, it's like something out of Sundance—the story of broken contemporary young adults therapeutically coming to terms with their pasts together.

And while my gut tells me that the show — from New York City Ballet-based choreographer Justin Peck and set to songs by Sufjan Stevens — isn't actually a musical per se, it is both a transporting and soul-stirring experience.

A quartet of singers, positioned god-like on platforms high above a painted plywood stage, perform Stevens' 2005 album, a richly layered time capsule of the Midwest, while looking down on the engines below.

Ricky Ubeda (back) and Ben Cook are great dancers. Photography: Liz Loren, 2024

more than Johnny Oleksinski

Henry (Ricky Ubeda) spontaneously leaves his New York apartment to go on a fall hike, where he encounters 11 people around a campfire sharing the trilogy of stories they've written. Oddly enough, they carry glowing orbs, like Godzilla's fireflies.

The first half of “Illinoise” consists of disparate, episodic vignettes that sometimes have structured plots, rather than with any dialogue or character singing as you'd find in a typical musical. For millennial readers, this format brings to mind the young-adult horror series set deep in the woods called Are You Afraid of the Dark?

One of the tales, led by the wonderful Alejandro Vargas, revolves around serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Another dance by Janet Delgado, treating the Founding Fathers like monsters in Thriller.

Illinois stories are told in lively vignettes around a campfire. Photography: Liz Loren, 2024

The “Metropolis Man Steals Our Hearts” segment is lively and fun, though confusing in context, with Brandt Martinez playing Superman.

So far, “Illinoise” is a pleasure to the eye and ear, but it's largely an indistinguishable dance party.

The show's greater purpose emerges — and so do ours — when the adorable Úbeda opens his character's diary, having gained the confidence to speak (or, you know, twirl and bend), and recalls his difficult journey with his childhood best friend Karl. (Ben Cook).

The memories of inseparability, unrequited love, loss and more loss are painful, especially in the stunning ballad “The Seer's Tower,” angelically sung by Chara Nova.

Shelby (Gabe Diaz) and Carl (Ben Cook) are old friends of Henry's. Photography: Liz Loren, 2024

Ubeda and Cooke, who respectively played Mr. Mistofeles in “Cats” and “Newsie” on Broadway, are wonderfully expressive performers in their faces and movements as they weave together and then painfully separate.

Musical theater choreography is a fine art in a different way, of course, but there is real joy in watching amazing dancers like these do what they so clearly dream of doing. This passion radiates through this cast and the entire show.

Peck, whose only other Broadway show was 2018's “Carousel,” removes any perceived pretense from the dancing. His creations are graceful and precise, no doubt, but also angry, celebratory and enveloping when combined with Stevens' imaginative music.

Instead of feeling like I went to a ballet recital, I could have been at a backyard bar in Bushwick, where there were lots of baggy pants and flannels.

That's great. The last thing Broadway needs is more of the same.

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