‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ boasts Broadway-ready melodies, but plot threads need attention

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” — 2.5 stars

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” — an unorthodox musical premiering at Goodman Theatre based on John Berendt’s 1994 true-crime-inspired bestseller — begins with a haunting prelude in a Savannah, Georgia, cemetery.

In the shadow of an enormous tomb, surrounded by funerary statues and beneath a grand canopy of gnarled branches dripping with Spanish moss (Christopher Oram’s lush, murky set is among this production’s delights), voodoo priestess Minerva (Brianna Buckley) summons ghosts.

Moments later, wealthy antiques dealer and historic preservationist Jim Williams (Tom Hewitt) saunters on stage, pours himself a glass of Madeira and — in a boffo number straight out of musical theater’s golden age — introduces us to the eccentric citizens of Savannah, where in 1981, the real Jim Williams — one of its prominent citizens — shot and killed his young, male lover and business associate in what he claimed was an act of self-defense.

Antiques dealer/restoration expert and murder defendant Jim Williams (Tom Hewitt), center, welcomes fellow society mavens to his annual Christmas party in Goodman Theatre's musical adaptation of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

But, while sex and murder propels the main plot, there’s more to this tale than blue bloods behaving badly. Directed by Tony Award winner Rob Ashford, with a score by Tony-winner Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Bridges of Madison County”) and a book by Taylor Mac, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is about outsiders trying to make inroads. It’s about people excluded from society because of their race, class, gender identity or sexual orientation creating a place for themselves. And it’s about the not-so-latent bigotry that still haunts the South, as evidenced by the former Savannah debutant who has a college degree and a business plan but can’t get a business loan because she’s Black.

Musically, “Midnight” impresses thanks to Brown’s marvelous, Broadway-ready melodies (beautifully played by conductor Thomas Murray’s 12 instrumentalists) and affecting, clever lyrics, one of which tips the hat to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” when Jim refers to famed songwriter and Savannah native Johnny Mercer, whose family home Jim restored to the envy of his neighbors.

“You won’t find Aaron Burr, sir,” croons Jim, “but here lies Johnny Mercer.”

The sound is rich. Production numbers are well-sung and artfully staged (Tanya Birl-Torres’ sultry, sinewy choreography is among the show’s great pleasures).

2023 Tony Award-winner J. Harrison Ghee plays The Lady Chablis in Goodman Theatre's premiere of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and writer Taylor Mac. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Mac’s writing is witty, and in a bold, albeit unusual, move, Mac casts the audience as book author John Berendt, prompting a competition for the author/audience’s attention between murder defendant Jim (a nicely calculating, vocally robust Hewitt) and transgender cabaret chanteuse The Lady Chablis (played by 2023 Tony-winner J. Harrison Ghee, who stuns in costume designer Toni-Leslie James’ dazzling gowns).

Presumably, Jim is the main character, but really the title belongs to Chablis. Despite having nothing to do with the central plot, Chablis dominates “Midnight” from the beginning when Chablis interrupts Jim’s welcome, to the end when Chablis encourages audience members to make confetti out of their programs.

A statuesque singer/dancer/actor whose high kicks rival those of a Rockette and whose scripted banter with audience members was so natural it felt improvised, Ghee is formidable, familiar and effortlessly self-confident.

Greeted by applause as the self-styled Empress of Savannah stepped onto the stage for the first time, Ghee’s Chablis quipped, “Let me earn it.”

By the final curtain, Ghee had earned it, stopping the show with a bravura performance of “More Room” — the 11 o’clock anthem urging marginalized people to “Take up a little more room/Be just a little too loud/Stand out a little too much/Let your chosen family hear it/‘Til the whole world can cheer it.”

Austin Colby, left, plays Danny Hansford, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks who Savannah, Ga., blue bloods describe as “a good time not yet had by all” in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Austin Colby plays Jim’s doomed lover Danny Hansford, the hunky young man from the wrong side of the tracks who has a chip on his shoulder and a hole in his heart. Rooted in anger, self-loathing and pain, it’s an excellent performance.

However, there’s nothing romantic or passionate about Jim and Danny’s relationship, which comes across as purely transactional. Jim wants companionship and sex. Danny wants financial security. Enmity not affection motivates these men and, as a result, the final moments of their penultimate duet ring false.

Similar hostility motivates Jim’s neighbor, preservation league president Emma Dawes, played by the terrific Sierra Boggess, who possesses a glorious soprano and fine comedic chops. A not-so-latent racist and homophobe, Emma is a schemer equal to Jim, and is determined to run him and Danny out of the neighborhood and so banishing “from this idyllic spot debauchery, debasement and moral rot.”

Emma Dawes (Sierra Boggess), seated, and her fellow historical preservationists imagine restoring Savannah, Ga., to its antebellum splendor in Goodman Theatre’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” directed by Tony Award-winner Rob Ashford. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Her minions include fellow preservationists the wry, boozy Serena Barnes (Mary Ernster), the morally malleable Vera Strong (McKinley Carter), Alma Knox Carter (Jessica Molaskey) and Mary Carter (Kayla Shipman) — whose casual racism is regrettably played for laughs.

We get to know them and other characters — burgeoning rebel Corinne Strong (Bailee Endebrock), Black debutant Lavella Cole (Shanel Bailey), Chablis’ right-hand person Jack the One-Eyed Jill (Wes Olivier) — through a series of vignettes, which unfortunately fail to coalesce into a cohesive narrative.

And that is perhaps the biggest challenge facing “Midnight” creatives: loose plot threads along with dueling narrators and a surplus of songs, two to three of which fail to advance the narrative and might be incorporated into other numbers or excised entirely.

And yet “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” — buoyed by A-list creatives and a top-notch cast — has potential. Realizing that potential requires some work.

I look forward to its next incarnation.

• • •

Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 11. No show July 30. No 7:30 p.m. shows July 21 and 28 and Aug. 4

Tickets: $40-$175

Running time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes, with intermission

Parking: Nearby garages; discounted parking with Goodman Theatre validation at the Government Center Self Park at Clark and Lake streets

Rating: For adults; includes strong language, sexual content, violence

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