Review: 'Illinoise,' based on Sufjan Stevens' concept album, clears a fresh Broadway path

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“Illinoise,” a hallucinatory dance musical based on Sufjan Stevens' 2005 concept album “Illinois,” offers a fitting end to a Broadway season that seemed happiest when operating beyond conventional assumptions and practices.

Whether the piece — I hesitate to call this delicate hybrid a show — is more dance than musical is not all that important. Let the theater award categories stretch to accommodate new forms and visions. The production, which was at the Park Avenue Armory earlier this season, has arrived at the St. James Theatre in the role of deus ex machina, rescuing Broadway from its hidebound habits.

All the elements of a musical are to be found in “Illinoise.” The music, blending indie folk, alt rock and chamber pop, creates space for collective reflection. The lyrics — poetic shards that blur the line between the personal and the historic, the symbolic and the idiosyncratic, the living and the dead — swirl from the recesses of inner life. The choreography translates this interior struggle into athletic grace.

Admittedly, the book by playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury and director-choreographer Justin Peck is more of an evolving scenario than a discernible drama. But the dreamlike production is thematically anchored. A compromise is struck between the theater’s proclivity for story and dance’s penchant for abstraction, allowing audience members to connect narrative strands in their own way.

Personally, I was relieved not to bear witness to another forced marriage between script and score. When the book musical works — as it does gloriously this season in the revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” — there’s nothing more satisfying. But for every Stephen Sondheim masterpiece there’s a barrage of jukebox and movie musicals eager to cash in on the forgiving nostalgia of theatergoers.

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“Illinoise” is conceived holistically. The work’s structure seems to have organically arisen from artists responding to one another, inspiration begetting inspiration. The result, grounded in love, is path-clearing.

Three vocalists (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, Tasha Viets-VanLear), kitted out in street-art butterfly wings, are perched on platforms. Their gorgeous, otherworldly singing — accompanied by an orchestra elevated elsewhere on Adam Rigg’s urban scaffolding set — gives the music a celestial breadth that extends beyond a single singer-songwriter consciousness.

I’m not intimately familiar with Stevens’ album, but I was caught up in the prayerlike sweep of songs that move beyond rational thought. Words are lost and meaning drifts, but the sense of emotional urgency, of a delayed yet inevitable self-reckoning, comes through.

The 12-dancer company is highly individualized, distinct in presence and style of movement. Each figure suggests a unique background, but certain facets of being recur. The inherent difficulty of coming of age is shared in a piece that tracks the movement from innocence to experience. Time, ever afoot, makes it impossible for anyone to catch up. Yet racing through life can continue for only so long.

Henry (Ricky Ubeda), a quirkily ordinary young man in shorts and a pink hat, seems to be on the run from painful memories. He and his journal have come to a clearing where others have gathered to share their stories. The campfire setting, demarcated with lanterns, suggests a support group. The phrase “circle of grief” was my own silent articulation for this communal stopping ground.

Other dancers hold illuminated orbs around Henry, reminding him of his spiritual presence. He is reluctant to spill his secrets, but it’s only a matter of time before he joins the others in unburdening his soul.

The tales that precede his are choreographic enactments of song interpretations. The program offers titles that will trigger meaning for devotees of the album: "a story about Jacksonville," "a story about Zombies," "a story about John Wayne Gacy Jr." and "a story about the Man of Metropolis." These ethereal chronicles are about ancestry and belonging, the haunted house of American history, murder and guilt and the longing for a superhero balanced against the luminous reality of vulnerable humanity.

The imagery conjures a supernatural patchwork of revenants and Superman. The content of these nightmares and obsessions doesn’t always resonate. Sometimes the feeling is fey; other times the literalization of song ideas flirts with corniness. But the intensity of the dancer’s relationship to the material speaks volumes.

It’s the act of catharsis, the exorcising of emotional demons, that makes “Illinoise” so gripping. Peck illustrates this process through the geometry of his staging. He has his dancers routinely break away from their clustered configurations to seize a confessional moment before reuniting in the embrace of the collective.

Henry’s tale involves first love and the devastation of early loss. Three figures dominate his mental landscape. Carl (Ben Cook), Henry's best friend and first love. Shelby (Gaby Diaz), a mutual friend and Carl’s first love, who falls gravely ill. And Douglas (Ahmad Simmons), who sees and claims Henry’s adult heart with an acceptance that can seem strangely and even alarmingly miraculous.

If Henry’s story were elaborated in dialogue, it would have trouble escaping sentimentality. But it’s the universal pattern, the way Henry’s experience echoes our own, that transcends the handling of specific plot points.

Peck, a prolific presence at New York City Ballet who choreographed dance sequences for Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film “West Side Story,” hugs tight to the inner journey. His choreography embraces the inherent difficulty in being.

Ease in the world, once lost, is hard to recover. This common story is communicated in a dance vocabulary of determined strides overcoming invisible burdens. When moments of virtuosity explode, as happens when Byron Tittle unleashes a spectacular display of Olympian tap, the effect is a victory of spirit as much as it is of mortal flesh.

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“Illinoise” becomes a road trip, as Henry ventures to Chicago and then to New York, testing himself in big-city landscapes that are incorporated in Rigg’s scenic design. The visual picture, sharply enhanced by the lighting of Brandon Stirling Baker and the costumes of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, suggests the sentimental education of wandering artists searching to reassemble the losses and gains that are inextricably part of maturity.

This has not been a banner year for new musicals on Broadway, but with “Illinoise,” the final show I saw this season, I glimpsed the majestic future.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.