Review: Welcome to ‘Illinoise,’ Land of Love, Grief and Zombies

Review: Welcome to ‘Illinoise,’ Land of Love, Grief and Zombies

In other hands, these mini-dramas might be insufferable, but Peck’s dances, neither airy nor arcane, make them sweet instead. They often begin with familiar hand gestures, like fanning flies or bad thoughts from the head, then grow into arm movements that ultimately pull in the rest of the body. In this way Peck eases us into the strangely divided language of the show, abstract above and concrete below, giving form to inchoate feelings.

Those feelings get more specific when, after 30 minutes, the focus narrows on Henry, a previously reluctant sharer at the campfire. As played by Ricky Ubeda, a Broadway regular and a winner on “So You Think You Can Dance,” Henry is one of those young men whose innocence is shadowed by a permanent sadness. We watch with some dread as, reliving earlier days, he and his best friend, Carl (Ben Cook), play games that gradually transform from roughhousing to romance. As their love develops in yearning and frisky pas de deux, we understand why Carl — who has a girlfriend, Shelby (Gaby Diaz) — does only dainty social dances with her. Diaz, another “So You Think You Can Dance” winner, turns the moment when Shelby steps away into a quiet heartbreak.

Soon, inevitably, Henry and Carl leave their small town, identified on a graffitied wall as Middle of Nowhere. To the strains of “Chicago” (“If I was crying in the van with my friend/it was for freedom from myself and from the land”) they embark on a classic road trip, first for the state’s biggest city and then the country’s. But tragedy soon calls Carl back from New York. And though Henry finds some degree of happiness with Douglas (Ahmad Simmons), eventually he too must make peace with the ghosts of his past.

This would never do in a “book” musical; it’s too compressed and sketchy. Nor would you pair such a story with songs like “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “Prairie Fire That Wanders About” and “The Seer’s Tower,” with which it shares only a glancing cousinship. But with the verbal dials turned way down, and the physical and musical ones way up, the calibration of information, from dreamy to piercing, is pretty much perfect.

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