‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ takes entertaining shape in Chicago

Goodman Theatre brings best-seller-turned-musical to stage

Goodman Theatre presents the new musical "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" through Aug. 11, 2024 in Chicago.

The 1994, nonfiction novel by first-time author John Berendt spent 216 weeks on the best-seller list. A 1997 Clint Eastwood-directed film starred John Cusack, Kevin Spacey and a young Jude Law. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” now turned into a world-premiere stage musical at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, certainly has an impressive pedigree.

And with a Tony Award-winning director (Rob Ashford), a Tony-winning composer/lyricist (Jason Robert Brown), a Tony-nominated writer for the book of the play (Taylor Mac) and Tony and Grammy winners/nominees in the cast, this show seemingly has all the elements needed for future Tony Award recognition.

Yet, I find myself a little torn in my feelings about the show in its present iteration. I’ll explain in a moment how I felt thoroughly entertained, yet a bit dissatisfied, too.

At its core, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is a 1980s crime story about Jim Williams (Tony nominee Tom Hewitt in this production), a nouveau-riche antiques dealer/restorer – “It’s the riche that counts,” he tells us. The Christmastime gala at his mansion in Savannah is always the most exclusive, hottest party for the Georgia city’s elite.

Goodman Theatre presents the new musical "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" through Aug. 11, 2024 in Chicago.

Jim’s younger, coarser assistant in restoration work is Danny Hansford (Austin Colby), whose relationship with Jim isn’t limited to work. Danny’s drinking, temper and anger over not being treated with respect boil over hours after partygoers have left, with a profanity-laced argument leading to Jim being charged with the shooting death of Danny by the end of Act I. But was it murder or self-defense?

In the meantime, the musical – as was the case in the book and movie – introduces us to more quirky Savannahians, such as:

• Minerva (Brianna Buckley), a voodoo priestess who knows that the half hour before midnight is “time for doing good” in Bonaventure Cemetery, but during the half hour from midnight to 12:30 a.m., “other things” can happen.

• The Ladies Historical Preservation League, led by Emma Dawes (Sierra Boggess), whose ego knows no bounds, especially when she receives an invitation to the White House for a luncheon hosted by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan. She constantly looks for the opportunity to buy and preserve Jim’s home, Mercer House, built by the great-great-grandfather of prolific lyricist/composer Johnny Mercer (“Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses”).

• LaVella Cole (Shanel Bailey), a debutante who’ll be heading to college to pursue a business degree and her dreams of having her own macarons shop.

• The Lady Chablis (Tony winner J. Harrison Ghee), the “Empress of Savannah,” an iconic drag queen (“I feel a little flushed in my Fahrenheit now,” Ghee sings at one point).

Goodman Theatre presents the new musical "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" through Aug. 11, 2024 in Chicago.

In the film version of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” The Lady Chablis is a supporting character who befriends and intrigues the reporter/author (played by Cusack). In this stage musical, Ghee and Hewitt are both leads, each serving as a narrator and willing participant, the audience serving the role of the author.

Whenever Ghee is on stage, especially during the empowering big number “More Room,” the audience is taken out of the murder storyline to share laughter and admiration for this force of nature. In the first act, when The Lady Chablis crashes a debutante ball for young Black women (including LaVella), you just know the elite event will be majorly loosened up.

While I was wonderfully engaged, and enjoyed such scenes – some involving the fanciest of dresses for The Lady Chablis (kudos to costume designer Toni-Leslie James) – my bit of dissatisfaction comes from a feeling that there were just too many side stories and subplots taking the focus away from the Jim Williams plot. An Act I scene involving “Since My Mama Died,” sung wistfully by Alma (Jessica Molaskey), a Preservation League member selling Jim one of her chandeliers, does allow the conflict between Jim and Danny to intensify, but it felt unnecessary. So did the Act II return of the LaVella character.

That being said, the Goodman has much to be proud of:

• The wide variety of songs and song styles – Brown has outdone himself here;

• The frequent humor (largely due to the characters of The Lady Chablis and the gossipy, high-society Preservation League members, but also because of the hilarious book by Mac);

• The impressive set with statues, Spanish moss and Savannah style (nicely done, Christopher Oram);

• The excellent dancing, as choreographed by Tanya Birl-Torres; and

• The chance all the actors get to shine under Ashford’s direction – and they do shine brightly.

That’s a lot of praise, all well-deserved. In my opinion, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is indeed a “garden of good” and I, well, dug it. This “Garden” will grow on you, and I expect it will blossom on Broadway.

• Paul Lockwood is a communications consultant at Health Care Service Corporation in Chicago, as well as a local theater actor, singer, award-winning columnist, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, and past president of TownSquare Players. He and his wife have lived in Woodstock for more than 23 years.


• WHAT: “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” musical

• WHERE: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago

• WHEN: Extended through Aug. 11

• INFORMATION: 312-443-3800, GoodmanTheatre.org/Midnight

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