‘Illinoise’ Broadway Review: What Teenagers and Moths Have in Common

Sufjan Stevens’ famed concept album about the state of Illinois makes an odd metamorphosis into a dance musical from director-choreographer Justin Peck

Three people stand holding guitars and dressed as moths, wearing large wings. A billboard in the background reads "Welcome to Illinoise." Light shines through a tree's branches in the upper right of the image.
Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-VanLear in "Illinoise" on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

For those theatergoers of a certain age, watching how the New York Times covers the theater is almost as interesting as going to the theater. Back in the 1970s, Clive Barnes (and later, Richard Eder) would review a show in the daily paper, then Walter Kerr reviewed the same show in the Sunday edition. I don’t recall many major disagreements. What I do remember is how these three critics put up a wall of downbeat reviews when it came to the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. (And for this, Kerr got a Broadway theater named after him?!)

One of the major critical disputes at the Times came much later, in 2005, when Ben Brantley dismissed “The Light in the Piazza,” calling it “discouragingly unfulfilled” and the music “very irritating.” A few weeks later, the newspaper’s music critic Stephen Holden reviewed the show’s cast album, calling it “the most intensely romantic score of any Broadway musical since ‘West Side Story.’”

Something similar but in the reverse happened recently at the Old Gray Lady. When “Illinoise” opened earlier this year at the Park Avenue Armory, Times theater critic Jesse Green wrote a rave, calling it “a mysterious and deeply moving dance-musical hybrid” that causes audiences “to organize [the show’s] various streams of information into a steady river of deep feeling inside our own heads.”

While Holden took four weeks to take on Brantley, the Times dance critic Gia Kourlas waited just six days to take on Green. She wrote of “Illinoise” that director-choreographer Justin Peck has his dancers “bouncing between giddiness and angst, with little in between. It’s hard to pin down what ‘Illinoise’ wants to be, thought it clearly has Broadway ambitions…. it’s drowning in sentimentality.”

At the Armory, I found “Illinoise” not only sentimental but downright whimsical. It was intriguing to see three singers walk out on stage wearing enormous fairy wings (costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung). Only later did I realize that they were moth wings, because “Illinoise,” with its book by Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury, is a coming-of-age story.

The dancers on stage can be seen as human caterpillars that blossom into human moths. “Illinoise” could be called “Metamorphosis,” but the songs come from Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 concept album, “Illinois.” The switch from that original title to “Illinoise” is not a typo. Chalk it up to the change being another metamorphosis, using the spelling seen on the album’s stylized cover, which read “Come on feel the Illinoise.” Beyond “sentimental,” the other word to describe “Illinoise” is “precious.”

“Illinoise” opened Wednesday at the St. James Theatre. On Broadway, unlike the acoustically dreadful Armory, it is possible to understand Stevens’ lyrics when the three singers (Shara Nova, Tasha Viets-Vanlear and Elijah Lyons) perform. The singers play roles named after several moth subgroups — Nacna, Arctiini and Barsine.

Center: Ricky Ubeda with the Broadway company of "Illinoise" (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Center: Ricky Ubeda with the Broadway company of “Illinoise” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The dancers seat themselves around a cluster of lanterns in a forest. (Adam Rigg’s scenic design features several upside-down pine trees.) Most of them look much older than the adolescents they’re playing, and since they attempt to act so young, a mawkishness infects the whole enterprise.

Through dance, they tell each other all about the state of Illinois, similar to the stories told within the songs and wordy titles of the original album. Wayne (Alejandro Vargas) fears he harbors the same feelings as serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Meanwhile, Jo (Jeanette Delgado) experiences nightmares about being unable to escape the influence of such monsters as Ronald Reagan, Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Joe McCarthy and other racist-reactionary boogeymen.

Clark (Brandt Martinez) imagines he’s Superman — yes, he shares a first name with Mr. Kent — and the other dancers help him realize his fantasy by providing a checkered tablecloth to simulate his cape. When Clark outgrows his childhood fantasy to become a man, he rips off his Superman T-shirt and throws it into the audience.

Another word to describe “Illinoise” is “simple-minded.”

Back to the story: Henry (Ricky Ubeda) is first seen wearing a blue shirt and pink baseball cap, lying somewhere (maybe a beach) with another young man, Douglas (Ahmad Simmons). Around the campfire of lanterns, Henry is reluctant to tell his story. The reason why is because — oh, the shame — he’s gay. (The giveaway is the pink cap and the blue shirt, because, when put together those two colors produce lavender.)

Finally, of course, the coquettish Henry tells his story: Before he met Douglas, Henry had a first love named Carl (Ben Cook) who had a first love named Shelby (Gaby Diaz) who dies of bone cancer. Carl and Henry have a lot of fun on a road trip between Chicago and New York City, but when Henry meets Douglas, there’s an argument, a few missed phone calls and Carl commits suicide, because that’s what gay people tend to do. Or is Carl bisexual?

I might have screwed up this story. After having seen “Illinoise” twice, I had a slightly different version of the narrative. Then I read the book by Peck and Drury, and I probably still got it wrong.

Peck, the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet since 2014, shows a limited dance vocabulary here. Whatever the characters are feeling, they keep repeating the same contractions followed by arms thrown over their heads, causing themselves to spin around, their hips leading the way. And because they’re playing kids or adolescents — Henry and Carl are old enough to have drivers’ licenses — there are also several jumps with bent knees and flexed feet. We know when the characters are happy or sad because they smile when they are happy and they frown when they are sad. The mime is strictly amateur.


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