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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Disney musicals have frequently been accused of being little more than cartoons dancing onstage, but compared to a real example of the genre they don't hold an LED-powered flashlight. The new show iLuminate, which just opened at New World Stages, is a giddily modern animated movie given pulsating life, with all the excitement, creativity, and unabashed two-dimensionality that pedigree implies.

The theatrical incarnation of the group's explosive performances on America's Got Talent in 2011 (when the group finished third overall), iLuminate was "written" (there's a scenario, but no script to be spoken) by producer-director Miral Kotb and Athena Sunga and scored by Justin "Kanobby" Keitt and Christopher Tignor to be little more than the last word in reverse-light dance parties.

The 11 performers, rigorously versed in everything from hip-hop to break dancing to The Robot, slice across the pitch-black stage wearing light-enhanced jumpsuits that outline their characters' exaggerated features—everything from floppy hair to a lizard head—and craft a universe of magic in which the dancers are free (and even expected) to catapult themselves about with an enthusiastic abandon that should be the norm in big Broadway ensembles but rarely seems to be these days.

None of this is exactly a gimmick, by the way. The lights (which Kotb designed by Jordon Monson) are integral to the presentation, and allow for "special" effects that couldn't be created easily—if at all—on a fully lit stage. Disappearing heads, torsos and legs that get separated and later reattach, and everything from people to props slickly soaring through the air establishes this as a reality under which recognizable and consistent physical laws operate (even if they're different from ours). And it manages to do so without calling attention to itself beyond the limitations of its basic conceit.

Yes, iLuminate throbs with movement, which is a good thing given how otherwise inclined it is to stay in one place. It attempts to tell a story, a pursuit that turns dicey quickly as each new opportunity for advancement becomes little more than just an excuse for more electric and terpsichorean stagecraft. Trying to follow it can be tedious when no one involved ever convinces you that they think it matters.

As far as I could tell, the fuss was about a guy, a girl, a magic paintbrush (uh, I think), and the evil half-amphibian who comes between them. It's all pretty incomprehensible, and not a particularly effective vehicle for the choreography (which is credited to five different artists, including Kotb); most of the big-group numbers look like unregulated dance-offs and determining who's doing what and for what reason is pretty much impossible. What's the deal with the magic teleportation portal? I couldn't tell you. Why does the hero fight a giant rattlesnake in the climactic battle? Beats me.

Because it all goes on for only 55 minutes, it stops (just) short of wearing out your patience; you're able to focus on and get wrapped up in the invention and the artistry without too much annoyance, which is about all you could ask for from a show like this one. What matters most is that the dancers are terrific, if largely indistinguishable given how little you see them, and you're forced to trust that their natural charisma will burn through the darkness (it doesn't really, but it comes close enough).

Everything else is secondary, and as a family-friendly proof of concept iLuminate definitely works. No, I wouldn't have minded had the company put as much thought into its storytelling as its lighting plot and its footwork, but even so it was an impressively conceived and executed way to transform ordinary dance into something you've never quite seen before.

New World Stages / Stage 4, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets and performance schedule at Telecharge

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