Saturday, June 09, 2018

Make No Small Plans: Despite Grand Ambitions and Estimable Efforts, 'Burnham's Dream: The White City' is Mostly Just Fair -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Burnham's Dream: The White City
a world premiere musical
book & lyrics by June Finfer
music & lyrics by Elizabeth Doyle
Lost and Found Productions
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru July 1

One of my favorite things about Chicago is something that took place 75 years before I was born.

Although I have seen pictures, read books, watched documentaries and attended exhibits about the 1893 Columbian Exposition, it's still hard to fathom that the World's Fair filled Jackson Park on the city's south side with the resplendent "White City," with its symphony of classical, monumental buildings rivaling ancient Rome.

So while waiting for one of Chicago's great museums--particularly the Museum of Science & Industry, housed in the Fair's only major extant building; the others were created to be temporary and burned down shortly after--to create a true virtual reality replication of a day at the fair, I'm always happy for opportunities to explore the White City in new ways.

The Joffrey Ballet's 2-year-old production of The Nutcracker, conceived by Christopher Wheeldon as taking place amidst the building and beauty of the Fair, was an absolute joy when I first saw it last December.

And loving musicals as I do, I was excited to learn about Burnham's Dream: The White City, a world premiere created by Lost and Found Productions and now running at Theater Wit.

Especially as I was graciously accommodated to see the show despite a Press Night conflict, I would really love to relay that it was fantastic, nearly as glorious as the White City itself presumably was.

And while I can't truly rave about the show in full, I think it's more than fair enough to finely fill 2-1/2 hours for those who share my fascination with the Columbian Exposition and how it came to be in Chicago.

Even my issues with Burnham's Dream do not detract from genuine admiration for the efforts of composer/lyricist Elizabeth Doyle, writer/lyricist June Finfer, the crew who put it all together, a talented cast and a group of musicians performing new material.

It's quite an undertaking, and even with imperfections, the world premiere musical merits support.

This isn't a review that says "Don't see it" (check if ticket discounts exist on HotTix, Goldstar and/or TodayTix) but rather one that says this brand new, relatively small scale musical doesn't nearly equal two acclaimed favorites it reminded me of--Sunday in the Park with George and Ragtime--and could use considerably more joie de vivre.

With a nicely functional set by José Manuel Diaz-Soto--allowing for video scrims as needed--we are welcomed to the Fair before the show even begins, with some nice period music on the P.A. (A kind patron in front of me graciously identified a song as "Moonlight Bay," then Googled to find it was written in 1912.)

A solid group number, "We Gotta Get It" begins Burnham's Dream: The White City with the architect Daniel Burnham (played by Pavi Proczko) and other big shots within the burgeoning city on the prairie hoping their bid for the "1892" World's Fair--commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World--will prove successful.

Obviously, it did, though it would wind up opening the following year. 

Although Louis Sullivan (Daniel Leahy)  was among the noted Chicago architects hoping to head the Fair's design, the project was awarded to the business-savvy Burnham and his imaginative partner, John Root (Sam Massey), who belt out "We Are a Team."

Though nicely informative about the basics, the rather straightforward narrative shares how the monumental task and Burnham's steely-but-boorish resolve creates discord with his wife Margaret (Laura Degrenia), who opines in song, "Never Marry an Architect."

Also factoring in are Bertha Palmer (Genevieve Thiers), the wife of Chicago magnate Potter Palmer who demands that the fair's Women's Building be designed by a woman, and racial justice activist Ida Wells (Arielle Leverett), who wants more African-American representation.

Wells' song, "Sweet Land of Liberty," which wonders "is equality not meant for me?" is one of the better ones.

Act II covers, loosely, how the pioneering Ferris Wheel became the main attraction of the fair's Midway, deals with the deaths of a couple key individuals, finds Burnham struggling to get everything built on time and ends with a powerful choral finale amid pictures of the gleaming White City.

I appreciated some interesting architectural tidbits, such as that the White City's Court of Honor--whose buildings were designed by architects beyond Burnham & Root, including Sullivan and New York's Richard Hunt (Robert J. Brady)--maintained a sense of unity by having cornices at matching heights, per Burnham's dictum.

So there is considerable merit onstage, including most of the vocal timbres, and nice work by Proczko and Massey as Burnham & Root.

And I realize the folly of saying, "but unlike Sondheim" as everyone is unlike Sondheim in terms of lyrical sophistication.

But unlike Sondheim and other icons of musical theater songwriting, Doyle and Finfer--who have fine career pedigrees but haven't, per their listed credits, previously collaborated on a musical--have yet to master the art of weaving wit & charm into their songs, nor focused on how to make them about more than what's taking place onstage.

I say this with inherent appreciation for what they have done, for it far exceeds any talent I have, but for the most part the songs of Burnham's Dream are rather pedestrian, without levity, depth or universality.

In Sondheim's wondrous Sunday in the Park with George, revolving around the pointillist painter, Georges Seurat, the story and songs are about the artist, without only being about him. (e.g. "Finishing the Hat" from that show specifically pertains to Seurat painting a hat within his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but it's far more universally about the life sacrifices an artist makes in the name of laser-like focus on his/her work.)

Though few songs in Burnham's Dream: The White City are complete duds and all move the story along, few made me smile, think or remember them afterwards.

And while there is knowledge to be gained for many attending this show--even if one can probably learn much the same info about Burnham, Root, Sullivan, the fair's genesis, construction, challenges, etc., via a good documentary or other vehicles--other than a bit about some Irishmen, including one named Michael O'Malley (Chase Wheaton-Werle) who becomes Burnham's assistant, we are never really given a sense of Chicago welcoming the world.

As I understand the Columbian Exposition and its impact on history--particularly Chicago history--getting it built was an obviously Herculean task, but in many ways it was really just the starting point. 

None of which means this show is bad or not worth your time.

It has a good conceit, obvious care and some inspired moments. Those enamored by the history will find enough to enjoy.

But overall, Burnham's Dream: The White City is mostly just Fair.

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