Review by Brittany Crowell

Henry is lost.  Having lost dear friends, he finds himself searching for answers within himself, in his journal, and through campfire friends between rows of midwestern corn stalks where campers and dreamers share their deepest fears and dreams.

Illinoise is about love old and new, lost but not forgotten, blooming and blossoming.  The new dance musical by Justin Peck (with a book support by Jackie Sibblies Drury) based on the album of the same name by Sufjan Stevens celebrates the healing power of community and friendship in a heartfelt and joyful celebration of vulnerability and healing.

The album itself was created as a part of Steven’s “50 state albums” which essentially ended after the ‘Illinois’ album, but not before it was lauded by some as the “most popular album of 2005.”  On the stage, the musical loses some of its midwestern roots, journeying as far as New York and Seattle in its tales.  Peck and Drury weave a mostly successful narrative through the poetic archives of the album, structuring a campfire journal sharing first act where more location-specific songs find their place, springing from the pages of journals of fellow searchers and dreamers as our hero, Henry, watches and works up the confidence to tell a story of his own.

The 90-minute, intermission-less show then deep dives into Henry’s tale of three individuals who he’s cared for deeply, lost, and is holding onto.  The remainder of the piece follow’s Henry’s journey from childhood to campfire and ends in a series of beautiful and joyful ballads about the healing power of sharing and community.  The comradery on the stage is palpable and almost has the audiences taking the journal out of Ricky Ubeda’s (Henry’s) hand to share our own journey and find our own healing.

Peck also choreographed the piece, with movement that the amazing ensemble of dancers make look therapeutic and easy (although the strength and skill taken to execute the extensions and swift movements is not lost on anyone).  The dancers move with and against the music, painting beautiful portraits across the stage and emulating loss, excitement, comfort and joy as their characters struggle, heal, and grow.  

Particularly strong moments of choreography included Carl’s (Ben Cook’s) reprise of a duet sans partner where he trippingly and emotionally repeated the movements that before had seemed so natural and smooth; and Ubeda’s Henry’s frantic processing of loss to an unending drum riff.   Fellow journal sharers (Rachel Lockhart, Jeanette Delgado, Alejandro Vargas, and Brandy Martinez) shine as well, bringing endless energy, strength, and vulnerability to their stories.

The stage itself, designed by Adam Rigg, places us solidly in the midwest, mixing the aged infrastructure of abandoned yellow and red train tracks with a backdrop of corn stalks, hanging conifers looming down from the proscenium, and touches of coastal “post no bills” and graffitied walls.  Lighting by Brandon Stirling Baker really shines, casting shadows of telephone lines and fire escapes or projecting aged advertisements and title cards across the aged billboard that looms above the stage below.  Flashlights, lanterns, and balls of light are used by actors to create campfires, cars, and ghosts and graffiti messages are highlighted throughout the piece to help the audience travel in a moment from coast to coast.  Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s costume design adds additional punches of color and personality to each character and transforms dancers from storyteller to monster to prop to community.

Illinoise is running on Broadway for just 16 weeks and is a wonderful interpretation of Sufjan Steven’s concept album, adding narrative touchpoints and reinterpreting the songs of the multi-instrumental artist with three wonderful musician-vocalists (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viets-VanLear) and expansive musical arrangements and orchestrations by Timo Andres.  It’s a full-bodied celebration of telling stories, being vulnerable, and (very loosely) Illinois making some noise right now at the St. James Theatre.  

 

ILLINOISE – music and lyrics by Sufjan Stevens; book by Justin Peck & Jackie Sibblies Drury; directed and choreographed by Justin Peck; orchestrations and arrangements by Timo Andres; music directions and supervision by Nathan Koci.

FEATURING: Ben Cook; Gaby Diaz; Ahmad Simmons; Ricky Ubeda; Yesenia Ayala; Kara Chan; Jeanette Delgado; Carlos Falú; Christine Flores; Jada German; Zack Gonder; Manny Houston; Rachel Lockhart; Brandt Martinez; Dario Natarelli; Tanner Porter; Tyrone Reese; Craig Salstein; Byron Tittle; and Alejandro Vargas.

WITH VOCALS BY: Elijah Lyons; Shara Nova; and Tasha Viets-VanLear.Scenic design by Adam Rigg; lighting design by Brandon Stirling Baker; costume design by Reid Bartelme & Harriet Jung; sound design by Garth Macaleavey; associate director and choreographer, Adriana Pierce; associate scenic design Evan Adamson.  Produced by Nate Koch and TT Partners in association with Fisher Center at Bard. At the St. James Theater: 246 W 44th St.  https://illinoiseonstage.com/