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Chicago Shakespeare’s ‘Illinoise’ reprises Sufjan Stevens

“I got my bags, Illinois,” singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens wrote. “I saw a lake in my dream and I took my son. Man of Steel, Man of Heart. Turn your ear to me.”

This single verse, more than anything heard on Stevens’ 2005 album “Illinois,” seems to drive the magnificent new album. theater experience at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Here, Justin Peck, arguably one of the best young choreographers working in America today and an incorrigible seeker of narrative and emotional truth, spends 90 minutes on this critically acclaimed composition by a master of electronica or chamber pop, or however one wishes to describe it. He meditates throughout. Stevens’ esoteric but famously deep voice. Stevens and Peck’s work unfolds through an ensemble of a dozen gorgeous dancer-actors, a trio of hipster vocalists, and 14 live musicians under the direction of Nathan Koci, all of whom sound as indie-cool as their voices.

It should be immediately clear that the resulting “Illinoise” does not have a definition that residents of the Prairie State would immediately recognize. The way the series is going isn’t likely to interest the state’s tourist authority, especially considering one of the pieces is about serial killer John Wayne Gacy. It doesn’t try to summarize what it means to be a Chicagoan, an Illinoisan, or even a Midwesterner. That’s not his point.

In fact, not only did the musician immediately abandon the project of recording an album in honor of each of the 50 states, to be released on his own label, Asthmatic Kitty, but he also later said that there was always something to it. a trick. He eventually released albums only in honor of his home state of Michigan and Illinois.

If you’re not too familiar with Stevens’ poetic lyrics, know that what he draws from the Midwestern iconography of this particular patch is a set of cues suitable for lyrical riffing, and the more offbeat, the better. Stevens was intrigued by Casimir Pulaski Day (who isn’t?), Metropolis’ Superman, Decatur, and UFO sightings. One of the tracks on the album that I spent a lot of quality time with lately is called “Come On!” Feel the Illinoise!”, a tribute to British pop band Slade as well as anything to be found in Normal or Peoria.

Peck sees in this work a naturally theatrical storyteller, and in a work next to New York’s Park Avenue Armory, he attempts to tie these album pieces together with the help of master playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, who wrote a skeleton script. rather than a traditional book, given that the series has no dialogue or any words not set to music.

Simply put, this new story involves a group of friends, apparently from Downstate, who gather at what appears to be a state forest preserve to tell stories from their journals. One by one, they take the middle of the circle. to “A Chorus Line” though it takes center stage with a protagonist, a gay man at the center of a complex web of friendships and love relationships. Chicago, the state’s largest city, is the place to go for self-actualization; But Peck is the principal choreographer of New York City Ballet and knows which side of the cake he’s buttering. After all, Chicago is just a way station. The cool kids are going to New York. Where else?

This longtime Chicago writer has watched it decline many times before. I’m not offended. (Just saying.)

The dancers whose talents are ballet, tap and contemporary dance are all so magnificent that I cannot single out any of them. You’ll enjoy the work of Kara Chan, Ben Cook, Jeanette Delgado, Gaby Diaz, Robbie Fairchild, Christine Flores, Rachel Lockhart, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Byron Tittle, Ricky Ubeda, and Alejandro Vargas.

Peck isn’t the first choreographer to take an interest in Broadway and overt theatricalization, and there are times when this piece reminds me of Twyla Tharp’s work. “I’m moving” it was structurally similar and had some of the same tensions between the specificity of narrative and the bodily evocations of mood and emotion (between Chicago and New York, moving more toward the former as audiences wanted). Tharp was also dabbling in a body of work comprised of discrete stories, albeit from a more accessible musician. I think Peck has found a good balance: my main criticisms of the piece are that a sort of false ending appears a few minutes before the main conclusion, and that overall the last 10 minutes are weaker, more stuttering and scattered than anything that emerges coherently. gone before. I guess time flies.

The creativity of Peck’s work is truly remarkable: How a gingham fabric becomes Superman’s cape is wonderful, as is the way Peck and Drury honor Gacy’s victims and how they approach the racial tensions and oppressions that have existed in this state’s history. The show is a very heat-centered work; strange yet vulnerable, both experimental and familiar.

Like what he does “Carousel” and “West Side Story,” both of which I thought were excellent choreography-wise, Peck expresses the longing so well. He knows how to create images and then explode them to encapsulate what happens to our bodies when we feel nervous, afraid, or don’t trust our partners or friends. But he also loves to manifest joy, and so he takes Steven’s naturally introverted work by the hand and steers it in that direction. I imagine Stevens will be surprised at how entertaining he can be.

I think super fans of this composer will experience heaven here. Timo Andres’ orchestrations are close to the originals but also subtly theatricalized and therefore fresh. The choreographer and the musician understand each other’s gestalt. And the whole affair has the feel of a Grateful Dead experience for the faithful.

If you’ve never heard of this shy musician before, you’ll have a wonderful sensory experience as long as you understand what you’re getting and what you’re not getting.

Meanwhile, the Chicago run is both short and close to selling out.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Illinoise” (3.5 stars)

When: Until February 18

Where: Chicago Shakespeare’s Yard Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.

Running time: 90 minutes

Tickets: $57-$135 at 312-595-5600 and www.chicagoshakes.com

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