Review: Goodman Theatre’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Needs Pruning

The new and eagerly awaited production of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil at Goodman Theatre fails to present a unified story and collapses under its own weight of plot and character. After two-and-a-half hours of Midnight, I can only conclude that it fails as theater.

Thirty years ago, journalist John Berendt published a "non-fiction novel," Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, that quickly climbed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and stayed there for 216 weeks—one of the longest tenures on the list. What attracted all the attention then, besides a now-iconic book jacket photo, remains just as captivating today—Berendt's ear for local dialog, eye for telling detail, and masterful skill with a really good story: the accidental shooting?... hotheaded killing?... cold-blooded murder?... of ne'er-do-well handyman and sometime-escort Danny Hansford by his employer, mentor and sugar daddy Jim Williams, a local art collector, antiques dealer, semi-closeted gay man and fixture of Savannah's faded genteel society.

It was a tale that could have sprung from the pen of William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams, except that it all really happened. Mostly.

Brianna Buckley (center) and ensemble members of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil . Photo by Liz Lauren.

Three decades after it was first published, Berendt's story retains its popularity, thanks in part to a 1997 film adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood. What is perhaps surprising, given the sheer amount of Southern Gothic packed into the book, is that it has taken this long for someone to turn it into a musical.

Which is where composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown and book writer Taylor Mac come in. Together, they have tried to recapture Berendt's lightning-in-a-bottle success with their own approach to the story. Unfortunately, this is a magic not so easily reconjured.

Brown has built a steady 20-year career writing musicals that don't quite become hits, but later achieve some after-the-show-has-closed esteem, including a Tony award or two. Similarly, Taylor Mac enjoys demimonde recognition for their performance art and cabaret pieces, but not great popular success.

Together, they have written a show, directed by Rob Ashford, that fails to cohere as a unified theatrical narrative, instead dissipating its energy and dramatic force in a series of increasingly tangential misfires until, by the musical's end, it collapses under its own weight as plot resolution and character development are almost scooted off stage in a bum's-rush. The incongruous 11 o'clock number seems to be tacked on from a completely different show.

Tom Hewitt and ensemble members of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the show is that, whatever its faults on the page and in direction, it possesses an absolutely stellar cast, starting with Broadway vet Tom Hewitt, who plays murderer / raconteur Jim Williams with a irascible honey-dipped charm that is hard to resist.

Similarly appealing is Sierra Boggess as the shoulder-padded, helmet-haired leader of a pack of '80s ladies, Savannah grande dames, who by turns judge Williams (for his crime... for his gayness...) and clamor for his approval. In addition to her comic chops, Boggess displays her trademark soaring soprano that first brought her fame as one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's favorite Phantom of the Opera ingenues.

Sierra Boggess, backed by Mary Ernster, McKinley Carter, Jessica Molaskey and Kayla Shipman. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And, above all, there is J. Harrison Ghee, who absolutely ignites the stage every time they appear as local drag queen and "Empress of Savannah" the Lady Chablis. Ghee first gained acclaim in the role of Lola in Kinky Boots, and won a Tony for their performance as Jerry/Daphne (the Jack Lemmon role) in 2022's Some Like It Hot. Ghee is an electric performer and perfectly suited to play the "story-stealing" Chablis. However, it should be pointed out, that Ghee's sizzling portrayal of this outsized character requires stronger direction to prevent them from derailing the musical's larger story.

Another strong point is the production's evocative scenic design by Christopher Oram, that successfully transports the audience to the live-oak environs of Savannah's history-haunted homes and public squares. Lighting is by Neil Austin and Jamie Platt and sound design by Jon Weston. Choreography is by Tanya Birl-Torres. Costumes are by Toni-Leslie James. Stage managers are Saori Yokoo, Jennifer Gregory and Mars Wolfe.

With more time to work on the production, a musical Midnight may eventually prove a success. But, like the historic restorations Jim Williams so cherished, it will require discipline and a well-trained eye for detail.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil plays through August 11 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. The show runs two-and-a-half hours, with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are available at www.goodmantheatre.org.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a contribution. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.