Sufjan Stevens Dance-Musical ILLINOISE Is Monumental - Review


Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory | Photo: Stephanie Berger

Joey Sims
No items found.
March 8, 2024 2:14 PM

“All things grow,” as Sufjan told us. On its journey from green seclusion to the big city, the wondrous new dance-musical Illinoise has changed in subtle and fascinating ways. Now arriving at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, the show lands a little differently from its Fisher Center incarnation last summer. Yet it remains, above all else, a magical work of enormous heart that bursts with indescribable wells of emotion. 

When I first saw Illinoise in the Hudson Valley last summer, the show hit me as a nostalgic reverie. Directed and choreographed by Justin Peck (a Tony winner for Carousel) with a story co-written by Peck and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, it drew faithfully from Sufjan Steven’s acclaimed 2005 concept album. 

Peck and Drury’s concept for theatricalizing the record, which weaves together historical commentary and personal narrative through a mix of musical styles, was a campfire story-time. Out in some Illinois wood (a “special, air-filled, hard-to-reach place,” per the program), hikers gather around a fire and take turns sharing an intimate piece of themselves. They do so through the vessel of Stevens’ songs, marvelously orchestrated by Timo Andres and performed by a band of 14.

Perhaps it was the natural setting, or the summer air. That Bard was also my alma mater inevitably played a role. But last summer, as Stevens’ wistful tales of heartbreak and loss washed over me, my mind traveled to youthful blunders, long-forgotten heartbreaks, messy college nights that stretched on forever. I felt the intimacy of Stevens’ stories. 

Byron Tittle, Christine Flores, KaraChan, and Ricky Ubeda | Photo: Stephanie Berger

At the Armory, those same stories now feel monumental — a revolt of mighty compassion against a cruel, suffocating world. Adam Rigg’s vibrant set is an island in the huge sea of the Drill Hall, with upside-down white pine trees hanging ominously above this soulful band of wanderers. 

Peck and Drury have leaned into the album’s political potency, retaining but de-centering the campfire setting to ensure that their Sufjan stand-in, Henry (Ricky Ubeda), is always in the forefront along his journey towards self-expression. A soft, mournful figure in a cute pink baseball cap, Henry joins the campfire but is unwilling, at first, to share. 

So the other hikers take the lead — and gradually, their tales of one state’s history place Henry within a larger American tapestry. 

First, Morgan (Rachel Lochart, fearless) grapples with a complicated lineage in “Jacksonville,” dancing with ghosts of the city’s repressive past. Wayne (a sensitive Alejandro Vargas) fearfully considers the rampage of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and the secrets “beneath the floorboards.” Robbie Fairchild’s Clark lives his Superman dreams, indulging the ultimate in American fantasy. And Jo Daviess (Jeanette Delgado) flees the “Night Zombies,” monsters of the American politic whose grip over the country refuses to subside – even in death. 

Peck can conjure the specters of America’s past in an overly literal manner, as when the zombies produce identifying name cards: “Ronald Reagan,” “Jerry Falwell.” But this would hardly be a faithful Sufjan adaptation without some degree of cringe factor. 

Still, I conceive of this section as Henry sorting through his own tangled, half-formed understanding of the cycles of cruelty and bloodletting upon which America is built. We see, and feel, his own terrible naïveté. 

Finally, Henry tells his own tale: of striking out to New York with his best friend and first love, Carl (Ben Cook, sweetly fragile); of Carl’s swift return back home to care for his true love, Shelby (an open-hearted Gaby Diaz), while Henry remains; and finally of Carl’s spiral into depression following Shelby’s death. 

Byron Tittle and Robbie Fairchild | Photo: Stephanie Berger

It’s a devastating narrative, but Peck teases out joy whenever he can find it. The high point is of course “Chicago,” which he stages as a jubilant ode to youthful innocence and joyful optimism. The achingly sweet pas de deux “Predatory Wasps of the Palisades” is beautifully played by Ubeda and Ahmad Simmons, as Henry opens his body and heart to the idea of being truly and wholly loved. 

That scene’s viscerally upsetting counterpoint is “Casimir Pulaski Day,” an futile love duet in which Carl desperately clings to Shelby as her body grows weaker until, in a haunting final image, she is ripped from his grasp and pulled into the abyss. 

In the past, Peck’s theatrical choreography has at times pushed too hard, overwhelming the space with an excess of activity. There are a few too-much moments here, but mostly Peck’s joyful excess feels just right – in “writing from the heart,” these storytellers have a fierce desire to reach out, and the tension between Sufjan’s understated melancholy and Peck’s grand expressiveness draws out their desperation.

Peck’s strain to bring joy into Stevens’ sad tales is self-aware, a knowing act of fantasy. Certainly that is how Henry and his partner’s happy concluding embrace hits, knowing what we know of Stevens’ own tragic loss.

In that exultant finale, Peck is setting aside grim reality to allow us a final escape. For a moment, he lets us forget the history – night zombies, Gacy Jrs. lurking in shadows, the Sear’s Tower looming overhead. We return to the comfort of the campfire, where you need only step forward and offer your tale, and love will form its protective embrace.

No items found.
Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

No items found.