Burnham’s Dream by Lost and Found Productions is a musical about one of the most iconic times in Chicago history. Only 22 years after the Chicago Fire, the city was on the verge of being chosen to represent all things new, beautiful and bold about the world at the time, and Daniel Burnham, along with his partner John Root, were in charge of building it. They’d dream it into existence and make that dream into the White City we’ve come to hear about in reverent whispers. It’s the perfect setting for any sort of epic tale—of hard work, of conflict, of love or activism—all of those elements sit neatly within the real-life narrative of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Unfortunately, Burnham’s Dream never quite realizes any of these elements, despite a two-hour-plus run time.
Much of the problem has to do with the book and lyrics. The people involved in the World’s Fair in Chicago are as epic as the White City itself—from Chicago architects Burnham, Root and Louis Sullivan to Ida B. Wells, Margaret Burnham and Bertha Palmer. But the actors who portray them have to fight through too much to get them off the ground. Instead of good characterization on the part of the script, you’ll get a gaggle of architects doing a softshoe, or the entire cast shouting “We’ve Got It! (The Fair)” over and over and over again by way of an opening number that immediately has you rethinking things.
Daniel Burnham, played by Pavi Proczko, comes off as a real jerk, and an immature one at that. Since the play centers around him and his dream, it’s an odd choice, even if that’s backed up by historical accounts, especially since it’s very much downplayed by the denouement. Meanwhile, John Root, played by Sam Massey, is softspoken and full of heart, often the voice of reason to Burnham. A second voice of reason comes with immigrant worker Michael O’Malley, masterfully and likably portrayed by Chase Wheaton Werle, who injects much-needed humor and heart to the story.
Here’s where the wooden characterization gets egregious. Inexplicably, Bertha Palmer, a veritable force of nature on the Chicago scene and someone who gave a strong voice to the capabilities of women in her time, gets an outlandish Middle Atlantic accent that undermines her character’s depth. And Louis Sullivan is reduced to little more than a caricature, a barb in Burnham’s side, slithering around set and whining about how he doesn’t get to be in the show. When he then does get to be “in the show” and help build the fair, he mostly complains about how much the fair’s neoclassical architectural style will set back Chicago architecture 40 years. Now, it’s a complaint made by the actual Louis Sullivan, but probably not over and over and in place of most other conversations or normal activities. Cue softshoe. This is especially unfortunate because Daniel Leahy, who portrays Sullivan, is an obvious talent, with a great voice and a subtle humor in his actions and a fantastic stage presence.
The actor who stood out to us the most, though, was Arielle Leverett, who portrays important civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. Wells was a former slave who became a journalist and activist, and who protested the World’s Fair in Chicago on the grounds of its hiring practices as well as the ban on including African American innovation in the fair’s exhibits. Leverett’s Wells is fearsome and unapologetic for standing up for her rights, and persistent in trying to convince Burnham and Root to hire African American workers and feature the amazing inventions and innovations of African Americans in the fair’s halls. Leverett also has an incredible voice, perhaps the musical standout of the group.
With a few exceptions, the fact that it’s a musical is one of Burnham’s Dream’s downfalls. First, because the pit orchestra is crammed into a corner behind the set’s scaffolding, with the sound bouncing off the wood and back at them instead of out towards the audience, and second, perhaps not helped by the first problem, is that the orchestra is often out of tune or time. Lyrics, too are a pain point, with an opening number that overstays its welcome and almost entirely consists of the entire cast shouting “We got it! We GOT IT! We GOT IT! The Fair!” There’s also a plaintive song about never marrying an architect sung by Margaret Burnham (another character lost in the sauce, portrayed by Laura DeGrenia), which so casually butchers sentence structure to fit the song’s meter that I made a note to check and see if Margaret Burnham spoke English as a second language. (She did not, and was in fact the daughter of Chicago Union Stockyards president John Sherman, a lifelong Chicago resident.)
This brings to mind another pain point, which is that the city itself seems little more than a name drop within the play. Set design doesn’t help with this, especially in the first act, as it’s a bunch of artfully arranged scaffolding with some large sheets of fabric in between, onto which are projected various city scenes, and eventually the fair. Even with a tight budget, it felt like more could’ve been done to really give a great sense of place. With something that’s been so glamorously portrayed in almost everyone’s mind, it’d be a tall order to ever truly reproduce the splendor, especially on a small budget, but it certainly merits a try.
Story hasn’t truly come up yet because it’s meandering and overshadowed by “the musical,” which is perhaps my biggest beef with the play overall. I overheard people saying they didn’t want to see dancing architects, but if the story is told well enough, as it is in so many classic musicals that come to mind, then dancing architects would be just as fitting as anything else. The main plot is basically “Are we going to finish this fair?” This storyline is supplemented by what seems like mostly noise—Sullivan hates Burnham, Margaret hates her husband’s job, everyone hates Chicago winters, right? And so forth.
This sums up the problems with Burnham’s Dreams—wasted potential. It’s a thread that carries through just about everything. It seems like it was a musical first and a story second, and that the characters are simply rolling along with the format, and that’s a particular shame for a piece about such an interesting time in Chicago’s history (let alone the world’s) where there were interesting people whose influence remains today. In 2.5 hours on stage, we never really feel more than a brief connection to the story or the people within it, which is only aggravated by the presence of jazz hands and hat tips.
The production is directed by Erik Wagner. Book and lyrics are by June Finfer, music and lyrics by Elizabeth Doyle). Music director is Paul W. Thompson with choreography by Jessica Texidor. Costumes are by Alaina Moore.
Burnham’s Dream continues through July 1 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $42 for performances Thursday-Sunday.