‘Illinoise’ Review: A Thrilling, Genre-Defying Broadway Musical Brings the Sufjan Stevens Album to Lyrical Life

Sufjan Stevens’s indie folk concept album “Illinois” (2005) is whimsical, earnest, and sorrowful; it weaves together events and figures from Illinois history (including UFO sightings, Pullman cars, the World’s Fair of 1893, and the Lincoln/Douglas debates) with Biblical allusions and feelings of shame and loss. This multifaceted mix, often stirring and fascinating to listen to, is not an inherently logical choice for a narrative work of art — and yet, Justin Peck has devised, directed, and choreographed a 90-minute dance theater piece based on it, one that will indelibly be remembered as one of the most singular productions in recent Broadway history.

Billed as “a new Broadway musical,” the piece brings up questions of genre. The songs advance the plot, but are sung by members of the band, with the cast entirely composed of dancers. In some ways, “Illinoise” overlaps with two other productions this season, “Hell’s Kitchen,” which uses Alicia Keys’s catalog and is inspired by her life, and “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” a Huey Lewis jukebox musical. There’s also echoes of the 2002 musical “Movin’ Out,” which used Billy Joel’s songs to tell a story through dance.

More from Variety

In addition to primarily being dance theater, “Illinoise” differentiates itself in its fidelity to its source material as not just a source of material but as an object of art to be kept intact. Unlike the many jukeboxes that have come before it which combine songs from several eras, “Illinoise” is unique in its embrace of the concept album as a discrete unit. Whereas something like Green Day’s “American Idiot” incorporated a number of songs beyond the central album, this more focused model opens up new theatrical possibilities, and there are many albums that could thrive under this treatment. (Lorde’s “Melodrama” comes to mind.)

Almost all of the 22 tracks on “Illinois” appear in some form in this piece, though they have been rearranged and reordered to fit the overarching narrative of the piece, crafted by Peck in conjunction with playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”). Now “Illinoise” tells the story of Henry (Ricky Ubeda), who gathers with strangers in a field to tell each other stories as a form of ad hoc group therapy. Storytelling becomes the central device of the piece: the stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves, the way we recite our own memories, and the power that storytelling can have as a form of emotional release (for those on stage and for us in the audience).

While the largest portion of the piece concerns Henry and the story of his two deceased friends, Carl (Ben Cook) and Shelby (Gaby Diaz), the show is split into three “acts” and these memories make up only the second. The first act gathers the cast and includes four numbers, each described as “a story about” (“Jacksonville,” “Zombies,” “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” and “The Man of Metropolis”). These ballads are not integrated into the wider arc of the piece about Henry. In this, the storytelling motif is slightly cheapened, used as a convenient structural device to fit in songs that Peck and Drury could not work within Henry’s story. (They also did not manage to include any exploration of religion.) After Henry finishes his extended story — told over nine songs, including the beloved “Chicago” — the brief final act returns to the group for a euphoric conclusion.

The second act is the real heart of the show. In it, we learn of Henry, Carl, and Shelby’s close friendship, complicated by various romantic feelings (not always reciprocated) and eventually eviscerated by Shelby’s death from cancer and Carl’s subsequent suicide.

Cook and Diaz exquisitely capture the insouciant youth as well as the torment and suffering of their characters. Brandt Martinez does an excellent job as the storytelling group’s leader (though he is slightly less charismatic than Robbie Fairchild, who danced the role in the show’s previous run at the Park Avenue Armory). Among the ensemble, Alejandro Vargas, Jeanette Delgado, and the tap dancing Byron Title stand out for their verve, energy, and expressive movement. Ubeda, as our protagonist, dances with tenderness and skillfully captures the intense emotional contours of the piece.

There is a certain amount of autobiographical material, and Henry and his partner Douglas (Ahmad Simmons) are clearly styled to resemble Stevens and his late partner Evans Richardson. Also, the three vocalists (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viet-VanLear) don Stevens’s signature insect wings, which he often wears in performances.

While in theory the dancers are the stars, the vocalists are absolutely vital and equally responsible for the success and beauty of the piece. Lyons is the sonic core, and his impressive vocal range and tender falsetto is spell-binding. Nova has an alluringly rare sound, and her two solos (“Seer’s Tower” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”) are heart-wrenching; for these she goes beyond the role of background singer and gives a full-faced acting performance. Viet-VanLear provides a smooth vocal blend, uniting the distinctive voices of Lyons and Nova.

“Illinoise” is, among many other things, a remarkable concert of Stevens’s music. The original album features an impressively eclectic orchestration — including not just piano, guitar, and drums, but also flute, accordion, trumpet, violin, banjo, organ, vibraphone, and more. Timo Andres’s orchestrations and arrangements allow these sounds and textures to combine with complex three-part vocals, melding to create something familiar yet new, improving upon the original. Likewise, sound designer Garth MacAleavey has performed some acoustic miracles, making the score feel crisp, thundering, and tender. Adam Rigg’s set, which consists of an upside-down evergreen forest, a field of wheat, and an industrial space (dynamically lit by Brandon Stirling Baker), heavily features both the vocalists and the musicians, giving them positions of prominence alongside the dancers.

Peck’s choreography is as marvelous as it is moving. Several dance motifs repeat, a nod to the theme of memory and haunting. Often these are tied to characters, like Carl and Henry’s balance-beam swaggering and swaying, or the side-by-side swing-inspired dance and handshake of Henry, Carl, and Shelby. Peck’s choreography is decidedly modern, but his ballet background informs the work, with long-line leg extensions at classic angles and a flurry of precisely-spotted spins and turns.

At times the choreography can become frustratingly literal, as when Henry holds a steering wheel for all of “Chicago,” a chemotherapy IV-drip is brought out at the start of “Casimir Pulaski Day,” or when a dancer ominously points to a Sears Tower poster in “Seer’s Tower.” For a fully instrumental dance piece, this might have been helpful, but because we have lyrics, it is entirely unnecessary to literalize them in this way, and feels like Peck doesn’t wholly trust the audience to follow along.

In theory, the raison d’être of interpretive dance is to push back against the literal and to, as the name suggests, interpret, to take liberties, to find deeper meaning. In the songs treated as “stories,” the choreography sadly stays at surface level (dancers as zombies, a soloist in a clown outfit murdering people, Superman shirts) without fully mining the deeper, symbolic meanings of the songs.

There are, however, a few brilliant moments where Peck’s choreography becomes more interpretive. In “Decatur” and “Seer’s Tower” he mostly eschews the lyrics, embracing the thematic content of each song, with the former bittersweetly showcasing the trio’s bond and the latter becoming a depiction of suicidality, wherein Carl’s dark thoughts are anthropomorphized by the dancers, who gradually, one by one, leap off a high platform. While it’s odd that Peck stages “Predatory Wasp” as a duet between Henry and Douglas (despite being about a past experience with Carl), he ends the piece with Henry having a panic attack, triggered by a memory of that critical moment when he kissed Carl, rupturing their friendship. Douglas then calms him down, helping him breathe with a violin-scored, three-sided rhumba. Without a doubt it is one of the most touching moments of the piece, a visceral staging of a uniquely queer trauma. It features a gut wrenching arrangement, with Lyon’s upper register pleading that he “meant no harm” and asserting, over and over, “we were in love.”

Despite some qualms with the occasional literalness of the choreography, Peck’s work here is undeniably gorgeous and flawlessly executed by the extremely talented cast of dancers. Reid Bartelme and Karriet Jung’s costumes outfit them in an array of crop tops, baggy pants, and other items that have the look of a trendy Brooklyn thrift store. They are differentiated and given moments to shine, and also to harmoniously intertwine, notably in their repeated gesture of resetting the space by using a collection of lanterns to create a symbolic camp fire.

The ensemble join together most powerfully in “Man of the Metropolis.” The song is the only moment the dancers sing, and the line they repeat acts as both a mantra for the group and a core message for the show: “We celebrate our sense of each other. We have a lot to give one another.” “Illinoise” offers an intensely cathartic experience as we watch Henry retell painful memories, work through shame and regret, and come together with a community to process, to mourn, and to move on. Just like we are told in “Chicago,” all things go, all things grow.

Nothing about this is typical Broadway fare, but that’s exactly what makes it so worth seeing. “Illinoise,” though based on existing material, is a wholly original creation, a genre-defying work that expands what kind of art we can feature on Broadway. As the final lyric urges us, let’s “celebrate the few, celebrate the new, it can only start with you.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.