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Illiminal. Illuminate. Illinoise.

Love hurts and grief glows in "a new kind of musical."

NOTE: This is a spoiler-free review of Illinoise. Any specific details about the production are information already included in the program for the show.

Have you ever loved someone so much that they make it feel like home? Have you ever had to move somewhere and have that be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, physically or emotionally? And then had the people from that place make it feel so incredibly difficulty to say goodbye to? And then not been able to express that loss and simultaneous wholeness in an articulate way?

Then Illinoise may be the perfect show for you. Conceptualized, directed, and choreographed by Justin Peck to Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album Illinois, this “new kind of musical” takes its audience through a 90-minute roller-coaster ride of elevation, heartbreak, and healing. Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury collaborated with Peck on devising the narrative story presented in the musical, which has no spoken word beyond the lyrics penned by Stevens. The “players” in the show—boasting of ballet dancers, Broadway and Broadway-turned musical film featured dancers, and former So You Think You Can Dance contestants and winners—tell the story through movement. Meanwhile, all the vocals are performed by Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, and Tasha Viets-VanLear, each of whom also play instruments along with the magnanimous band of 11 musicians and backing vocalists led by Nathan Koci. Each of the vocalists wear butterfly wings, a clever nod by costume designer duo Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung to Stevens’s iconic accessory during his Illinois world tour.

Just from the shared roles of the creative team and company, it is clear how intensely collaborative this project has been from its inception. Peck has said in an interview with The New York Times that it took Stevens five years to agree for him to create a theatrical performance piece set to Illinois. The two have collaborated on several occasions before, Peck citing Stevens as “the voice in music that has led me down paths further than I’ve ever gone before.” And this mutual trust in each other’s artistry is so evident in Illinoise, especially as Stevens has had very little to do with the creation of the musical especially in the last couple of years, during which he publicly shared news of his partner’s passing in April 2023 as well as him being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that has left him unable to walk. 

Although Peck has admitted that the narrative in the musical is in no way biographical, it feels incredibly personal. And the personal and collaborative go hand in hand, with space, light, and music together weaving the journey that the company invites the audience into. I caught the opening night performance of Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory in New York City, marking my first time in the space. For anybody who has never been inside this building, the performance space is ginormous, the ceiling is so high and out of reach, and the production utilizes this venue to its benefit. Timo Andres’s arrangements and orchestrations, amplified by Garth Macaleavey’s design, soar in the vastness of the makeshift Illinois in the Armory. 

The set for Illinoise at the Park Avenue Armory. Yes, I arrived way too early. No regrets.

The stage is large, especially for a performing cast of 12, but it also accommodates the vocalists and musicians on the second level. At times, the physical space between the performers feels intentional, the distance representing the liminality between the characters going into or coming out of different phases of their lives. The simplicity of Adam Riggs’s scenic beauty is exquisitely accentuated by Brandon Stirling Baker’s lights, which together make the geographical transitions between places feel effortless yet difficult to traverse. This, of course, aids the storytelling premise, which has nine of the players seated around a campfire sharing stories from their journals. The first of these are framed more as vignettes, but each contribute to the overall feeling that the production strives to instil in its viewers. Ranging from a story of ancestry in “Jacksonville” to a story about the history of America (spoiler alert: The Founding Fathers? “They are Night Zombies!!”), from a story about the serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” to “The Man of Metropolis” i.e., our very own Man of Steel/Heart, each offers a different pace on the ride. 

Rehearsal for Illinoise, captured by Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times.

I found myself crying during the stories of joy and love, particularly the sequences set to “Jacksonville,” “The Man of Metropolis,” and “Chicago,” while breathing a little easier during the sections of loss and grief. Just as Peck’s choreography simultaneously elevates and grounds us, the grandeur of the music and vocals allows for these sudden changes of pacing and feeling to transition seamlessly, without leaving us feeling jolted on the ride. The darkness in Baker's design, too, plays a vital part as we move between and across experiences and feelings. Remember: each of the five players at the campfire who share from their personal journals, the final being our lead Henry (masterfully performed by Ricky Udeba), shares their innermost thoughts from their journals. We, as the audience, have the privilege of gaining access to the noise in their heads. At the same time, we have the honour of watching them find their breath and quiet, either through the progression of the storytelling or by way of them finding a way to “celebrate our sense of each other” because, after all, “we have a lot to give one another.” 

This “sense of each other” is the heart of the piece, especially when we live in Henry’s story, which is told through three key figures in his life. Henry’s story is a microcosm of Illinoise; for both, love hurts and grief glows. Without spoiling anything: throughout Henry’s story, we are in two big American cities, one of them obviously being Chicago, and a small town in the middle of nowhere, presumably in Illinois. I have now lived in at least two big American cities as well as a small town in the middle of nowhere in the Big Vast Midwest, which is perhaps why the piece spoke to me on such a deep level. Illinoise depicts falling in love and choosing life over love, even when that love is so closely associated with the life that you have lived for a considerable amount of time and the city/town in which you have lived and loved. The music and movement, together, capture the beat of the busy city and the comfortable rhythm of small-town nowhere, while also accentuating the competing cadences of two metropolitan hubs. And even though the noise in our heads as a result of these changes is considerably overwhelming, the choice to ignore that noise is a privilege that many are not afforded. The affective separation that arises as a result of that ignorance—or denial, as is the case for Henry at the campfire, refusing to share his story—contributes to the liminality that we live in throughout the piece. On the other hand, the price of giving into that noise is as high as the Seer’s Tower, and the effects of that are depicted physically, scenically, musically, and emotionally in Illinoise. Life and afterlife come together where the liminal, illumination, and the noise meet.

The nuances of these life- and love-altering decisions are difficult to articulate, yet Illinoise leans into the impossible. In every player's movement, in every musician's note, in every singer's harmony, there is a sense of that loss. And in the culminating ensemble, that loss is just a part of a bigger puzzle. Each loss carries with it an incredible life of joy, so why let go, when you can feel that Illinoise?



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