“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Daniel Burnham.
Daniel Burnham is probably best known as the person who gave Chicago its grid layout and network of municipal parks.
Architectural partners Burnham & Root or maybe Root & Burnham submit the winning proposal to design and supervise the building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to commemorate Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas.
The massive world’s fair project was not without its many business and personal challenges.
Spoiler alert: “Burnham’s Dream: The White City,” A Lost and Found Productions (visiting company at Theater Wit), shows how Burnham and group manage to pull the fair project off so the event is a huge success.
This historical musical is best described as an American opera as it has no significant dialog but rather contains about 23 songs and a reprise or two.
Generally factual, Chicago writer June Finfer took some liberties to move the story along.
In the “talk-back” after the performance that I attended, Finfer said she was inspired to tell this story because her late husband was an architect. As a result, her song “Never Marry an Architect” sung by Burnham’s wife Margaret (Laura Degrenia) was particularly personal.
Though the majority of buildings at the fair were constructed of wood with a kind of plaster veneer not meant to last, many Chicagoans know that the most prominent surviving structure is the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park. It was sturdily built as the Palace of Fine Arts to protect its valuable exhibit from potential fire.
The world’s first Ferris Wheel was introduced here, the proceeds of which are purported to have saved the fair from bankruptcy and immortalized in one of the best numbers in this production, “Like a Bicycle Wheel.”
It is clear that Finfer knows how to construct a play. The storyline is coherent and interesting and the lyrics are very good.
It is also evident that Finfer’s collaborator Elizabeth Doyle knows how to compose music but the style is constrained with the otherwise capable cast of performers struggling at times. The music never really soars and there is no real high-point.
Most musicals end the first act with a memorable, somewhat rousing number to carry you over during intermission. In this case “We Went Sailing” kind of sunk into oblivion.
“Sweet Land of Liberty” sung by early civil rights activist Ida B. Wells (Arielle Leverett) is maybe the standout tune, primarily because it interjects a bit of jazziness and some variation not otherwise evident.
There are a few other near misses such as “We are a team” and “It must impress” which include some nice multi-part vocal harmony but lack a big finish.
The finale number “If We Sing Together” almost gets there.
Pavi Proczko as Daniel Burnham works diligently in this challenging role but I would like to see more authority in his performance.
Sam Massey as John Root has a nice balance of passion and compassion with a sweet tenor voice to match.
Chase Wheaton-Werle as the fictional laborer Michael O’Malley does a killer Irish brogue perfected from his earlier performances in “Flannigan’s Wake.”He interjects some much needed humor and lightness.
Similarly, Genevieve Thiers seems to be enjoying herself with her exaggerated interpretation of socialite ‘Queen of Chicago’ Bertha Palmer. Her forceful contralto gives the production some of the lift it needs.
Choreographer Jessica Texidor literally keeps the cast moving which is much appreciated though the steps are a bit cliché and not always confidently executed.
Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s rustic set was serviceable but seemed a rehash of “Bonnie & Clyde” presented in the same theater. But this iteration was enhanced by the lighting and projection design of Joseph Burke.
Overall this was an okay local production performed by a talented cast. It will have its greatest appeal to Chicago history and/or Chicago architectural buffs.
This is a story worth telling and I hope that Finfer’s Lost and Found Productions team will continue to fine-tune and perfect what they have labored so long to begin in their world premiere.
“Burnham’s Dream: The White City” is presented by Lost and Found Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, through July 1, 2018. Running time: 2 hrs., 20 min. For tickets call (773) 975-8150 or visit Theater Wit.
For more shows, visit TheatreinChicago