Review: ‘Illinoise’ puts movement to the music of Sufjan Stevens — it’s not the usual Broadway show

NEW YORK — Sufjan Stevens’ hipper-than-thou music defies easy categorization. It goes by chamber pop, folk pop, electronica and numerous other descriptions inadequate for its lushly orchestrated romanticism, as topped by lyrics at once esoteric and emotionally intense.

Stevens always had a fervent fan base, increased of late by the appearance of music from his 2005 album “Illinois” in the hit TV show set in Chicago and known as “The Bear.”

“Took my bags, Illinois,” he wrote in his “Man of Metropolis” ditty. “Dreamt the lake took my boy. Man of steel, man of heart. Turn your ear to my part.”

And there’s my favorite Stevens lyric of all: “All things go. All things go.” Always good to remember that, friends.

“Illinoise,” a very late entry to the Broadway season after runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (where I first reviewed it) and the Park Avenue Armory, is Justin Peck’s choreographic response to the album “Illinois,” as explored with the writer Jackie Sibblies Drury, who has not written a traditional book to a musical but merely a loose and serviceable scenario where a group of friends gather in a rural clearing and tell through their movements their various stories of self-actualization, roughly corresponding to tracks on the album. If you remember Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” a response to the music of Billy Joel, or can imagine “A Chorus Line” in the cornfields of the Prairie State, you’ll have a sense of what goes on here.

Those tracks include such esoteric, perchance eccentric, subject matter as John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the Black Hawk War, Carl Sandburg and zombies. Stevens initially said he was going to release an album for all 50 states, but, in the end, he got bored with the project and managed only “Michigan” and “Illinois.” Too bad for the other 48.

On Broadway, you’ll hear a top-drawer group of live musicians and singers (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-Vanlear) who mostly had or have existing relationships with Stevens’ music. So to some extent, the aural experience is like streaming the album, although the theatricalized orchestrations are not identical to what Stevens did in the studio. Stevens groupies, whose obsession with detail has much in common with people who followed the Grateful Dead, will be fascinated. There probably will be enough of them for this show to find its audience for a good while, although this is hardly a mainstream attraction within the Broadway penumbra.

Those walking in off the street without advance hipster credentials will most likely focus on Peck’s work. This choreographer of immense stature in the dance world is theatrically ambitious, a major player when it comes to blurring the boundaries of ballet and Broadway, modern dance and production numbers, and his work here is sensual, clearly personal and very cool, especially when it comes to the trajectories of yearning and longing. His egalitarian ensemble, vulnerable to a person, does not have to sing, of course, and thus they can concentrate on their spectacular specialty: Kara Chan, Ben Cook, Jeanette Delgado, Gaby Diaz, Brandt Martinez, Christine Flores, Rachel Lockhart, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Byron Tittle, Ricky Ubeda and Alejandro Vargas all are quite beautiful to watch.

“Illinoise” is far from a typical Broadway show, and if you’re headed to this 90-minute piece, be aware that you are in for a sensorial experience primarily, even if the emotional underpinning of Peck’s work occasionally reaches out from the stage and grabs your heart. The piece sits very comfortably in the St. James Theatre, a more intimate venue than “Illinoise” enjoyed either in Chicago or on Park Avenue. It’s not a show for all tastes but it certainly makes the case that it belongs on Broadway.

At the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York;

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.