Broadway Review: ILLINOISE (St. James Theatre)

Post image for Broadway Review: ILLINOISE (St. James Theatre)

by Charles Kruger on May 3, 2024

in Theater-New York


For countless millennial hipsters, Illinois (2005) is THE album of their coming of age, as well it should be. Now, New York City Ballet’s wunderkind Justin Peck (Spielberg’s West Side Story) and playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (We Are Proud…) translate Sufjan Stevens‘ 2005 concept album into a wordless, glorious dance musical.

(front) Byron Tittle, Christine Flores, Kara Chan and Ricky Ubeda (kneeling)
(back) Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova

Stevens’ melodic poetry is the stuff of which young emotions are made (he wrote songs for the coming-of-age film Call Me by Your Name). His songs used in Illinoise — which transferred from the Park Avenue Armory to the St. James Theatre just in time to be a Tony-nominee for Best Musical — tell stories of growing up in rural Illinois, sharing the singer’s intimate feelings about news stories such as the tale of John Wayne Gacy’s serial killings (“even more, they were boys, with their cars, summer jobs / oh my god”), history (“Stephen Douglas was a great debater / but Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator”), Christianity (“all the glory that the lord has made / and the complications we could do without). Sufjan’s emotional truth is irresistible. I am a boomer, not a millennial, but I am one of the many who have celebrated and treasured this album for close to two decades.

Ricky Ubeda and Company
The Broadway Company of Illinoise

Interpreting these songs through the medium of dance is a brilliant idea, and Peck gives it his all. The choreography is easily accessible to theatergoers who may not have an extensive dance vocabulary, and the execution is flawless and deeply emotional. Although some of the choreography is repetitious (perhaps in keeping with the theme of memory), all of it is easy to understand as story and feeling. Peck has a reputation of being an exceptionally effective coach, and it is clear that his 15 dancer/actors have been successfully directed to bring emotional purity to their roles.

The Broadway Company of Illinoise

The structure of the storytelling suits the material well. A group of twenty-something writers gather in the woods. Sitting around a campfire, they spend an evening reading aloud deeply personal passages (Stevens’ songs) from their journals to this circle of friends. As various members of the group stand, and begin moving to the songs, the rest are drawn in to interpret the song through dance.

Ricky Ubeda, Ben Cook, Gaby Diaz, (back) Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova

A central but loose story involves the shy Henry (Ricky Ubeda) who wanders into this seemingly ungoverned group in a Prairie State cornfield. Henry is resistant to share his tale. He eventually divulges the story about his two best friends Carl (Ben Cook), with whom he was in love, and Carl’s girlfriend Shelby (Gaby Diaz). Some of the material is confusing, but this framing story about a cross-country adventure to New York and a love triangle, while unrelated to the content of the album, does put the focus on a single character, and allows us a point of identification by which to enter the action. Since almost everything is deeply moving, Drury and Peck’s concept is smart. The three leads have many wonderful moments, and the rest of the company support them beautifully. 

Ricky Ubeda, Ben Cook (back) Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova

With exquisite vocals, Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-VanLear precisely capture the style of the album from scaffolding at the sides of the stage, wearing butterfly wings as symbols of emergence, which is a recurring theme in the songs (the deeply felt “Chicago” and introspective “Casimir Pulaski Day” are standouts). Composer and pianist Timo Andres (grandson of Broadway great Marian Seldes) is rightfully nominated for a 2024 Tony Award for Best Orchestrations, which feature piano, guitar, drums, flute, accordion, trumpet, violin, banjo, organ, vibraphone, and more. The instrumentalists are also placed on scaffolding flanking the action; led by Music Director and Supervisor Nathan Koci they achieve gorgeous, tight nirvana. 

Ben Cook and Company
Ricky Ubeda and Company

Adam Rigg’s simple urban set is aided by Brandon Stirling Baker‘s striking light design (lanterns as a camp fire is inspired). While many moves are based in ballet, you would never look at this cast and think “dancers” and Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s everyday costumes (shorts, levis) are deceptive, as they allow the performers to dance freely. The spooky number “a story about Zombies” has the cast in ghoulish masks by Julian Crouch.

Fans of Sufjan Stevens will not be disappointed by this interpretation, and newcomers to dance-theatre may just have a cathartic experience. Will it please everybody? The jury is out. But I promise many will love it madly.

Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, Tasha Viets-VanLear

photos by Matthew Murphy

St. James Theatre, 246 W 44th St
ends on August 10, 2024
for tickets, visit Seat Geek or Illinoise

The cast also includes Kara Chan, Jeanette Delgado, Robbie FairchildChristine FloresJada GermanZachary GonderRachel LockhartDario NatarelliTyrone ReeseCraig SalsteinAhmad SimmonsByron Tittle, Alejandro Vargas.

The Company

Instrumentalists: Christina Courtin, Sean Peter ForteDomenica FossatiDaniel FreedmanKathy HalvorsonNathan Koci, Eleonore OppenheimBrett ParnellBrandon RidenourKyra SimsJessica Tsang. The creative team includes Sound Designer Garth MacAleavey, Props Designer Andrew Diaz, Associate Director and Choreographer Adriana Pierce, Associate Music Director Sean Peter Forte, Production Stage Manager Thomas Gates.

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