Hypnotic storytelling through music and dance in ‘Illinoise’ at Broadway’s St. James Theatre

Following its sold-out critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run at the Park Avenue Armory in March, the imaginative new dance musical Illinoise is now on Broadway for a limited sixteen-week engagement at the St. James Theatre. Based on the 2005 cult-hit concept album Illinois by Grammy- and Oscar-nominated American singer, songwriter, and musician Sufjan Stevens (music and lyrics), the groundbreaking show, with a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jackie Sibblies Drury and Justin Peck, who also provided the direction and choreography, delivers an emotional coming-of-age story of self-discovery through expressive live music, evocative dance, and theatrical staging, without the use of dialogue.

Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viets-VanLear. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Three hypnotic singers/musicians (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viets-VanLear) in metaphorical butterfly wings, accompanied by an eleven-piece band (with music direction and supervision by conductor Nathan Koci), take us on the journey of the main protagonist Henry, as recorded in his notebook, from childhood to adulthood, navigating friendship, love, loss, and community.

Featuring rich new orchestrations and arrangements by composer and pianist Timo Andres, the mesmerizing songs are presented in a different order than they are on the album to create a go-back narrative through his and the other characters’ experiences and feelings, which they take turns sharing around a campfire, after hiking through an Illinois cornfield into the middle of the woods (set by Adam Rigg). At first reticent, his campmates encourage him to tell his story, which he agrees to do after they’ve shared theirs. To help the audience follow along, selections from Henry’s handwritten journal (text by Drury; illustrations by Joanna Neborsky) are included in a separately bound keepsake handout, along with the Playbill program.

Ahmad Simmons and Ricky Ubeda (center) and the cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Presented in the format of three themed acts framed by a prologue and epilogue, the affecting fictional tale employs a variety of dance styles, including contemporary, expressionist, and conceptual, ballet and tap, performed by a masterful cast of fifteen. Together with the musicians and singers, they bring to life the hikers’ accounts and the incidents and folklore for which the midwestern state is known, from UFO sightings, Superman, and zombies (who turn out to be famous figures from our history) to a preacher and serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Each dreamlike segment, identified by signage on a large billboard, is enhanced with mood-setting lighting (by Brandon Stirling Baker), transporting sound (by Garth MacAleavey), and telling costumes (Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung), masks (Julian Crouch), and props (Andrew Diaz) that fully engage our imaginations and keep us entranced.

The company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In Act II, the dramatic events in Henry’s early life are conveyed with profound empathy by Ricky Ubeda in the lead role, as he discloses his most personal memories to the group, manifesting all the childhood fun, adolescent angst, developing identity, first loves, and traumatic deaths in his compelling facial expressions, body, and movements. The music and dance shift from joyful and exuberant to bittersweet, painful, and melancholic from story to story, as he travels from his small hometown to Chicago, New York, and back, from playing with his best friend Carl to finding himself attracted to him, from Carl falling in love with his girlfriend Shelby to their tragic deaths, from his chance encounter with Douglas to their developing relationship, and the encouragement, support, and release he feels after letting it all out by the warmth of the campfire in the company of people who care.

The featured cast of Ben Cook as Carl, Gaby Diaz as Shelby (in a stellar Broadway debut), and Ahmad Simmons as Douglas is equally eloquent in their portrayals without words, bringing all the inherent feelings to their characterizations and effectively relaying the personalities, their interactions, and their readily legible happiness and struggles through the supreme artistry of their bodies, in tune with the exquisite musical styles, encompassing haunting folk, stirring indie rock, and ambient electronics.

Ricky Ubeda, Ben Cook, and Gaby Diaz. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Act III and the epilogue leave us with hope for Henry’s future and a meaningful gesture that indicates the power of healing through open and honest communication, rather than keeping it all bottled up inside and suffering alone. It’s a beautiful conclusion to a unique and moving production that should be seen, heard, and felt, performed by an outstanding young company of dancers, musicians, and actors who will touch your heart – so be sure to get your tickets while you can.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

Illinoise plays through Saturday, August 10, 2024, at the St. James Theatre, 246 W 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $44-299, including fees), go online.

For a preview of the show, you can watch the trailer below:


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