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  • Angela Allyn

A Brand New Musical Is Born at the Goodman

Chicago has become a nurturing hot house for the growth of theatrical orchids: the Broadway show.  With a theater loving audience who wants shows to succeed, and still in some cases subscribes to a season giving trust and backing to a company taking risks on unknown work, as well as the rich talent pool on and back stage, our solid regional theater institutions are becoming a pipeline to the Great  White Way.

And so it is that Jason Robert Brown’s latest offering, with book by Taylor Mac, stepped out at the Goodman Theatre’s Albert Stage this week. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an interesting choice for a musical.  It's always hard to adapt non fiction to a musical, and it’s a big hill to climb taking one of the 1990’s most widely read books, which Clint Eastwood turned into a movie, and making that into something that sends folks out in the night glad they left their screens for an evening, live and in person.  I’m going to bet with a bit of heavy pruning this garden will be a hit. The dancing is superb, the characters are memorable if not always likable, and there is more than one singable tune in this score.  And there is an 11 o'clock song that will become a true anthem for every kid who never fits in (More Room)  Rob Ashford directs a large and spirited and insanely talented ensemble through all the back marshes the show may wander into, then pulls them out and keeps them rolling forward to the interactive and moving ending. 

If you were one of the few people who did not read John Berendt’s true crime book that is a deep dive into one of the South’s most emblematic cultures, the story is about the complicated character Jim Williams, (played here by Tom Hewitt) a charismatic and turns out gay Savannah antique dealer who restored the Mercer house, and who killed 21 year old Danny Hansford (played by Austin Colby),who was, in this plays telling, his lover.  But it is also very much about the racist, classicist conservative culture of the American South, steeped in confederate philosophy even generations after the civil war.  It's funny but its actually not. Emma Dawes (played by Sierra Boggess) leads the cabal of society ladies that is the arch nemesis of inclusion and acceptance. 

There is a second story here, and it's the interesting and transformational arc that carries this show: one of the characters moving through this tale with a drama all their own is the Empress of Savannah, The Lady Chablis, a drag performer who takes the stage and really takes the stage and never lets us get bored or unclear. J. Harrison Ghee plays this multifaceted star: she is a narrator, commentator and the character who reminds us of our humanity in what could become a sordid tale of upward white mobility.  There is a lot seething under the surface here about life and death, privilege and making your own luck, but an audience goes to the theater for a good story and at its heart this show has one, with great tunes.   Tanya Birl-Torres choreography is wondrous and the costumes by Toni -Leslie James are memorable– it takes bravura to costume a drag queen in tearaways and do the debutantes and aging southern belles and even some voodoo ghosts– the clothes help tell the story. Christopher Oram’s set design evokes historic Savannah giving us that sense of oppressive heat and moisture before the drinks are first poured.  Yes, alcohol fuels so much of the dysfunction in this culture. These are people who live lives with their shadows on full view.

You don’t have much time to see this brand new shiny musical– if you wait you’ll need to travel and pay Broadway prices.  Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is only playing Tuesdays through Sundays at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn in Chicago’s Loop until August 11, 2024.    For tickets and information go to


Photo by Liz Lauren

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