Goodman’s “Midnight” is welcome any time

Photos by Liz Lauren

I remember reading John Berendt’s wonderful and compelling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil when it came out in 1994, and then three years later enjoying Clint Eastwood’s movie version. Both were moody and fascinating, reflecting the central murder mystery and slightly supernatural undertones as well as the story’s Savannah, Georgia setting. Savannah is about as Old South as it gets, and walking its streets at night can easily bring some of its ghosts to life. Here, where some residents still refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” it can indeed feel like another world.

Berendt’s true crime novel treated Savannah as a central character, its gothic nature, its remarkable architecture, and its significant upper class providing a perfect background for the crimes of another main character, Jim Williams, who was convicted in 1981 of murdering his young gay lover. (Williams’ conviction was overturned on a third appeal.) But Savannah in the 80s was also the home of a lively subculture that found its center in a flamboyant character named Lady Chablis (who played herself in the film), providing Berendt with a different way to explore the underbelly of this city.

When I heard that the novel was going to be made into a musical by the Goodman Theatre, even names as powerful as Jason Robert Brown (composer/lyricist) and Taylor Mac (book) didn’t stop me from being concerned: this was going to be one dark, serious show; how could it work as a musical? The answer, though, is that it works absolutely brilliantly, and Mac helped achieve this by jettisoning a lot of the darkness and the courtroom drama in favor of a much lighter (and even quite funny) focus on the main characters themselves and the fabulous craziness of everyday life in this throwback of a town.

Brown’s songs are full of humor even when they are focused on dark themes. Williams himself, played by Tom Hewitt, often acknowledges that he is not a particularly nice guy, and his lover Danny (Austin Colby) is the kind of guy John Steinbeck once described as “just a ole walkin’ chunk of mean-mad.” Danny is anger personified, a broken person possessed of a deep-seated need to hurt people and break things because he’s been hurt and broken so much before. (Interestingly, he acquires a sense of perspective after he is murdered, and Colby becomes less a percussive antagonist than a calming presence.)

The other central character, Lady Chablis (a powerful, literally show-stopping performance by 2023 Tony winner—for Some Like It Hot—J. Harrison Ghee), is larger than life in the way that great cabaret singers usually are. Ghee is extremely talented, and her often over-the-top performances contrast nicely with the smooth, smarmy style that Hewitt displays as Williams. (Step back, though, and you might see that it is Williams who is putting on a show; Lady Chablis is simply allowing herself the freedom to be herself.) Mac has made this transgender woman into a much more significant part of the story than Berendt did, perhaps (correctly) intuiting that her huge presence would be a glue for the counter-cultural aspects of the story that are given less (or no) development here. (On the other hand, the silly jail sequences can easily be eliminated. They are fun, to be sure, but they detract from the very real consequences of Williams’ actions.)

As to Savannah, Christopher Oram has designed an incredible set that centers on Bonaventure Cemetery, the original home of the iconic “Bird Girl” sculpture that formed the cover of the novel, and what is known today as the Mercer-Williams House, home to two of Savannah’s most famous people, singer Johnny Mercer and (thanks to Berendt) Jim Williams. On a stage dripping with moss and festooned with cemetery statues, director Rob Ashford’s rapid a vista scene changes blend these settings, along with others, together to suggest the city in all its Gothic glory. Often-melancholy lighting by Neil Austin and Jamie Platt make it the kind of setting in which the presence of a witch queen (Minerva, played by Brianna Buckley) seems almost expected, and indeed Buckley’s powerful voice captivates Williams and his lawyer as easily as it does the spirits in the cemetery.

Other characters, of course, populate the city. Chief among them is a group of Savannah socialites (in wonderful Toni-Leslie James costumes) led by Emma Dawes (Sierra Boggus) who are happy to be a part of the nouveau riche restoration artist Williams’ entourage…until he is accused of murder and his homosexuality becomes public knowledge. Dawes, who has always distrusted him, becomes determined to destroy whatever social standing he maintains. Boggus’ character is really too silly and too self-centered—she reminds her colleagues again and again that she has been invited to the White House to meet Ronald Reagan—to be much of a foil; she is very funny, though, and her singing, as always, is a joy. (The other socialites could stand to be differentiated more, though.)

Also a joy is Shanel Bailey, whose debutante-turned businesswoman Lavella Cole is a youthful burst of energy whether dancing at a ball, fencing verbally with gate-crashing Lady Chablis, or trying to buck the engrained racism of her hometown to collect investors for her macaron bakery. (Along with several Lady Chablis numbers, her “Clap on One and Three” is a totally impressive song, even more so when it shifts gears late and allows her to awaken to the truth about Savannah and the South.)

Choreographer Tanya Birl-Torres has designed dances that allow a wonderful group of performers to show off and have fun in many different styles including everything from debutante ball waltzing to nightclub backup dancing to the choreographed ghostly movement in the cemetery. Between her and Ashford, there is always something remarkable going on no matter where you look.

This is one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in a long time, and I suspect it will have a long and successful run when it ultimately comes to Broadway. Many of Brown’s songs have the potential to become standards, and Mac’s book shows the right way to adapt a complex novel. Even with the inevitable changes that will come to the show before Broadway, Berendt, who joined the company onstage for bows on opening night in front of a massively pleased audience, must be very happy.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is now playing at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, until Aug 11. Performance times vary; check the website at goodmantheatre.orgFind more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *