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“Illinoise” reviewed

Justin Peck last lent his choreographic talents to the theater during the sweeping 2018 revival of Carousel. In that Broadway-debut gig, Peck, the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet, proved himself adept at infusing fresh movement into the beloved tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein — winning a Tony Award for his efforts. In his latest theatrical venture, Illinoise, running at off-Broadway’s Park Avenue Armory, Peck storytells through movement to music that is more modern — that of indie songwriter Sufjan Stevens — to results that are surprisingly moving.

In fact, it’s fair to say that this refreshing dance musical, based on Stevens’s 2004 concept album Illinois, joins the ranks of successful dialogue-free theater pieces such as Movin’ Out (movement by Twyla Tharp, music by Billy Joel) and Contact (dance by Susan Stroman to a variety of music). With Illinoise, Peck wisely teams with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) to devise a unique tale set around a campfire as each performer discloses their life journeys through movement. A trio of singers, the talented Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-VanLear, stand on platforms above the action to perform the songs from Stevens’s album.

Peck, who is credited as director, choreographer, and co-book writer, finds the perfect balance in devising the tale, avoiding spoon-feeding the audience but softly encouraging them to lean in. Peck and Drury’s approach is executed seamlessly by the troupe of pro performers, led by Robbie Fairchild, a veteran of the New York City Ballet who earned a Tony nomination for his 2015 Broadway debut in An American in Paris. Other standout dancers include Jada German, Ahmad Simmons, Gaby Diaz, and Ben Cook.

Peck and Drury’s vision is supported by a veteran design team. Scenic designer Adam Rigg, lighting designer Brandon Sterling Baker, sound designer Garth MacAleavey and costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung work together to fully realize Illinoise as a unique, heartrending experience. Added credit is due to props designer Andrew Díaz and mask designer Julian Crouch, whose contributions ensure a sense of in-the-moment theatricality as the dancers make magic onstage. Musical director and supervisor Nathan Koci teams with orchestrator Timo Andres to meet Peck and Drury point by point in translating Stevens’s seminal album to a dramatic medium.

While the Armory’s run of Illinoise is limited, fortunately, news of the musical’s upcoming Broadway transfer means even more lucky audiences will have the chance to enjoy a show that is like no other currently on the boards.