Jason Robert Brown and Taylor Mac’s world premiere musical adaptation of John Berendt’s best-selling non-fiction book runs through August 11, 2024

By: Jul. 09, 2024
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MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL is a sprawling, messy musical that weaves together the threads of several characters in 1980s Savannah, Georgia. Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown draws on a variety of different musical styles, while Taylor Mac’s book scenes present a series of vignettes for the Savannah residents. Brown uses a hodgepodge of musical styles to develop the characters, but the result is a score that lacks cohesion and is occasionally redundant. Along with director Rob Ashford, Mac and Brown took a “go big or go home” approach to MIDNIGHT. I admire the musical risk-taking, but the adaptation of John Berendt’s 1994 best-selling book is full of character threads but relatively light on plot. 

MIDNIGHT is erratic in its storytelling. Notably, the show opens with a few minutes of silence in an eerie graveyard in Savannah (set designer Christopher Oram’s work is opulent and expansive) followed by an atmospheric opening number simply titled “Minerva,” for the voodoo priestess played by Brianna Buckley. While Buckley sounds incredible, Minerva’s role is tangential to the musical’s proceedings — making it an odd choice for an opening number. 

Although the show introduces a number of different, quirky characters from Berendt’s book, the musical’s main focus is split between The Lady Chablis, a trans performer, and Jim Williams, a nouveau riche restoration expert residing at the historic Mercer House...who later murders his assistant and lover Danny Hansford (It’s not really a spoiler, as this was the main focus of Berendt’s book). 

I think bringing The Lady Chablis into focus was a strong choice, particularly because J. Harrison Ghee is magnificent in the role. Ghee has a magnetic presence and looks right at home in Toni-Leslie James’s glittering costumes. Whether Ghee is performing The Lady Chablis’s diegetic nightclub number “Let There Be Light” or the show’s rousing second act opener “True Crime” (a hilarious highlight), they command the stage with ease and grace. It’s fortunate too that Brown has written the strongest and most classically musical theater-sounding songs for the role. Centering The Lady Chablis in both Mac’s book and Robert’s songs as the representative of the outsiders of Savannah is a smart move; the more stage time for Ghee, the better. 

I was decidedly less interested in the show’s representation of Jim Williams. Brown has written a few too many solos for Jim Williams, particularly in the second act. And while Ghee is the embodiment of a classic musical theater star, I was much less taken with Tom Hewitt’s portrayal of Jim. Hewitt has a raspy vocal tone that sounded unpolished next to his fellow cast members like Austin Colby as Danny and Sierra Boggess as his foe, the historic preservationist Emma Dawes (with a powerful belt and a classic crystalline soprano). The show fails to endear us to Jim Williams in any way, nor does Hewitt’s specific portrayal of the character garner sympathy. I thought his performance was sadly lackluster, and it lacked the dimension and theatrical flair of some of his co-stars. 

This contrast is perhaps most acute in Brown’s two 11 o’clock numbers, one each for The Lady Chablis and Jim Williams. Ghee brings down the house with “Make Room,” a power ballad about taking up space. Sure, the sentiment is a familiar one for a musical, but Ghee really sells it. It’s followed, though, by “Rotten to the Core,” a number meant to reveal Jim Williams’ interiority and his guilt as he’s haunted by Danny. Compared to the spectacle of “Make Room,” it lacks emotion and excitement. It immediately brings down the energy the prior number so gloriously stirs up.

Brown and Mac introduce numerous other Savannah characters along the way. Boggess is easily a highlight as Emma Dawes, though her numbers are spread out so it’s occasionally hard to keep track of her whereabouts. She’s an excellent performer, showcasing her character acting abilities to the maximum while also showing off her formidable soprano. That said, while Boggess is always a welcome presence on-stage, Brown has given her two really similar solos in the second act “Sad House” and “It Takes Your Breath Away,” which seem redundant. 

Likewise, Brown’s score includes too many one-off songs for various Savannah residents, which means I found myself putting on my “critic as editor” hat during certain parts of the show. Alma Knox Carter’s morbid, dull ballad “Since My Mama Died” seems an easy cut; while Jessica Molaskey has a nice singing voice, the song is a one-note representation of a stereotypically greedy Southern woman. And while I thought Shanel Bailey was endearing as Lavella Cole, an enterprising young Black woman hoping to open her own business, her solo “Clap On One and Three” was simply too long relative to the size of her part in the show’s overall narrative. 

MIDNIGHT is a visual marvel. Oram’s sets and James’s costumes are gorgeous. Lighting designers Neil Austin and Jamie Platt also have particularly astute work; I appreciated the horror movie vibes of the lighting in the second act ensemble number “Reasonable Doubt,” in which the townspeople debate Williams’s guilt. That said, Tanya Birl-Torres’s choreography seems lost in the shuffle. MIDNIGHT’S not a dancey show, but I think Birl-Torres’s movement patterns also seemed haphazard at times.

Ghee as The Lady Chablis is the real beating heart in MIDNIGHT OF THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, but otherwise the musical’s score and character arcs need refinement to really come into focus. 

The world premiere of MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL runs through August 11, 2024 in the Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $40-$175 (subject to change).

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren


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