'Illinoise' review — dance your way through Sufjan Stevens’s album

Read our review of Illinoise off Broadway, the New York premiere of the new musical co-created by Sufjan Stevens, Justin Peck, and Jackie Sibblies Drury.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

Dance theatre typically doesn’t rely on literal representations, with dancers conveying plot and emotions through choreography rather than dialogue. Illinoise, the new ballet from Jackie Sibblies Drury and Justin Peck based on Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album, mostly exemplifies this genre, with the players mimicking speech in typical ballet style.

A few instances of more heavy-handed literalism are sprinkled through the piece, with gimmicks that work at first appearance but dull as they recur. A song about how our country’s founders and leaders haunt us, for example, doesn’t need accompanying identification signs to make its sociopolitical point; choices like this from director/choreographer Peck put too fine a point on an otherwise gorgeously crafted show.

Peck’s choreography, however, leaves a lasting impression: Sped-up sequences of mimed movement and intricate tap dancing from Byron Tittle are both highlights of the contemporary dance piece. The duet “Decatur” is refreshing both for its evocation of childhood through play as dance, with characters balancing on unseen logs, and for its exploration of the ballet duet through two men, protagonist Henry (Ricky Ubeda) and his best friend Carl (Ben Cook), whose obliviousness to Henry’s feelings endears us to him all the more. The ensemble of Illinoise is strong and often moves as if one unit, but Ubeda and Cook’s performances stand out for their ingenuity.

Illinoise summary

Drury and Peck adapted Stevens’s album into a loose story following Henry, a shy man with a secret who wanders into a wayward writers’ group in an Illinois cornfield. Each group member silently shares their dreams, fears, and life stories written in their journals, though Henry is reluctant to share his. He eventually divulges the story of his relationship with his two best friends, Carl, whom Henry was in love with, and Shelby (Gaby Diaz), whom Carl was in love with.

The ballet played at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater earlier this year and features vocalists performing memorable songs from the hit album, including the soulful “Chicago” and pensive “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

What to expect at Illinoise

Finding your seat at the expansive Park Avenue Armory isn’t the easiest task, but once seated, you can admire Adam Rigg’s large urban scrawl of a set. Lighting design by Brandon Stirling Baker features a few moments of bright lights combing through the crowd, but no strobes.

Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s costumes allow the performers to dance freely, though cast members don suits for one frightening number, “a story about Zombies,” which also features ghoulish masks by Julian Crouch. (Note that Illinoise features themes and discussions of suicide and mental health, including a dramatization of suicide.)

Arrive at the Armory early so you have time to read through the show’s long program, styled as Henry’s journal with text from Drury and illustrations by Joanna Neborsky – and after the show, you can add your own thoughts to the blank pages at the end.

What audiences are saying about Illinoise

Illinoise has received a largely positive audience response thus far, with an 84% approval rating on the audience review aggregator Show-Score.

  • If you came of age in the 2000s (or 2010s), you may find the journey of Illinoise all too relatable. Theatregoers and artists have pointed out on social media that Illinoise is tailored not only for indie music fans, but also LGBTQ+ audiences, dance theatre afficionados, and liberal arts schools attendees who sang “Decatur” in between classes.
  • Critic and professor Christian Lewis called Illinoise a “Vassar College fever dream” via X.
  • Show-Score user Brad 8690 called Illinoise “electrifying” and “a feast for the senses.”
  • Playwright and composer James Kennedy called Illinoise a perfect fit for “a person of Sad Gay Boy experience.”

Read more audience reviews of Illinoise on Show-Score.

Who should see Illinoise

  • If you’ve ever studied the Viewpoints acting technique, you’ll love Illinoise’s performances and the way the players interact with Rigg’s set.
  • If you learned an acoustic version of Chicago at summer camp, you might get teary-eyed in the audience.
  • If you used your mom’s Sirius XM account to listen to Alt Nation, you’ll love the pre-show playlist and the renditions of Stevens’s beloved songs by vocalists Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viets-VanLear.
  • Dance theatre lovers and fans of the New York City Ballet – where Peck is resident choreographer — will enjoy the chance to see more of his work. But if you’ve never been to a ballet before, don’t be surprised at the lack of spoken dialogue!
  • Fans of So You Think You Can Dance will recognize past winners like Ubeda and Diaz in the company.

Learn more about Illinoise off Broadway

Though the ballet ends on a note that echoes its more saccharine moments, Illinoise is a cathartic experience for dance-theatre newcomers and fans alike. The nostalgia factor may get people in the door, but Illinoise relies more on story than sentimentality and will change the way fans listen to Stevens’s album.

Learn more about Illinoise. Illinoise is at the Park Avenue Armory through March 26.

Photo credit: The cast of Illinoise. (Photo courtesy of production)

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