Entertainment » Theatre

Burnham's Dream: The White City

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jun 12, 2018
A scene from "Burnham's Dream: The White City" through July 1 at Theater Wit.
A scene from "Burnham's Dream: The White City" through July 1 at Theater Wit.  

Lost and Found Productions' world premiere of "Burnham's Dream: The White City" not so coincidentally falls during the 125th anniversary of the opening of the World's Fair that set Chicago on the path to the iconic city it would come to be. Much like the Fair itself, the musical by June Finfer (Book and Lyrics) and Elizabeth Doyle (Music and Lyrics) is a wildly ambitious piece of work that is often beautiful, yet decidedly flawed. Despite the places where the work itself misses, though, under Erik Wagner's direction, the production is well worth seeing.

A playwright and documentary filmmaker with numerous architecture-focused works under her belt, Finfer's (also president of Lost and Found) text is impressive in a number of ways. She overall steers the story well clear of either hagiography or a simplistically scathing dissection of the man behind the dream. Throughout, Finfer sets up compelling hero-and-villain dynamics between the various stakeholders as she brings different aspects of the Fair into focus, though some of these dynamics are more satisfying than others.

Louis Sullivan, for example, is literally a cape-twirling villain from Burnham's perspective, and the characters' inspired tango, "Buildings that Dance," is emblematic of Finfer's narrative success in pitting their histories and aesthetics against one another.

In contrast, the integration of Ida B. Wells into the story is less successful. Finfer more than hits the mark in her introduction of the famed African American journalist as Wells succeeds in provoking Burnham and evoking sympathy from his partner, John Root, with her rapid-fire questions about the inclusion of Negroes in the fair. This segues into the musically beautiful, but tonally out of place "Sweet Land of Liberty."

Later on, Finfer laudably tackles the erasure of women of color by first-wave feminists in a conversation between Wells, Burnham's hard done by wife, Margaret and philanthropist Bertha Palmer. Unfortunately, though, Wells' voice is drowned out literally and figuratively in "If We Sing Together," an anthemic number that not only centers Margaret and Bertha, but pulls in the play's (male) Irish workers.

This watering down of race issues is further exacerbated by Wells' inclusion in the show's triumphant finale, where she wordlessly hands her famous pamphlet, " The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition" to Burnham and adds a tepid postscript to Bertha Palmer's praise for the inclusion of women in the Fair.

These criticisms made, however, the play is infinitely better for Finfer's commitment to including women and people of color in the story, when it's all too likely that another playwright would have erased these voices entirely, as history and biography so often do. The same is decidedly true of Finfer's consistent and largely successful centering of the inherent interplay between artistic vision and politics.

Production-wise, Lost and Found's team has clear enthusiasm for and understanding of Finfer and Doyle's vision. José Manuel Diaz-Soto's scenic design is fittingly ambitious for the small space at Theater Wit, though it's also, perhaps, a bit too historically accurate in being physically treacherous for the actors, with its narrow passages and multi-level wooden platforms.

The skeletal nature of the static parts of the set suggests a Chicago still rebuilding in the wake of the great fire. White curtains, raised or lowered in as appropriate, provide backdrops for Erin Pleake's projections of portions of the White City itself and other iconic Chicago locations. With occasional stumbles, these projections work well in depicting the dream, the reality, and the problematic spaces in between, and Pleake's lighting design is excellent throughout. Alaina Moore's costumes also shine in communicating individual personality as well as important markers of class, race and ethnicity.

It's hard to arrive at a unified take on Elizabeth Doyle's music, as the music itself is quite the pastiche of different styles from the period. However, much of it is enjoyable (and Root's number "Celestial City" is outright transcendent) and manages to carry off the occasional clunky lyric with some success. In turn, Jessica Texidor's choreography, with one or two exceptions, beautifully supports words, music and overall vision for the story.

The performances are strong across the board, although there is the occasional mismatch in register. As Burnham and Root, respectively, Pavi Proczko and Sam Massey are both very good. Musically and in terms of their choreography, they play extremely well off and with one another, but dramatically, Proczko seems to be playing to a larger house than Massey.

That's arguably appropriate to the character of the two men, but this sense also intrudes on the dynamic between Proczko and Laura Degrenia as Margaret Burnham. Again, Degrenia does a lot with fairly repetitive woman-behind-the-great-man material, but the two sometimes seem to be proceeding from and to slightly different places.

Daniel Leahy and Genevieve Thiers make for an interesting pair of delightfully over-the-top performances as Louis Sullivan and Bertha Palmer, respectively. More than simply providing comic relief (although both capably fill in that role), their takes on these iconic characters lend humanity and realism to those at the story's center. Michael Kingston and Robert J. Brady ably serve a similar function as the often-interfering money men, Lyman Gage and Harlow Higinbotham.

Chase Wheaton-Werle turns in a very good performance as Michael O'Malley. As the lone, entirely fictional character in the play, O'Malley's material is a well-intentioned, if heavy-handed, attempt on Finfer's part to draw attention to the anti-Irish sentiment of the day, so it's especially to Wheaton-Werle's credit that he is memorable in a positive way. On a similar note, Arielle Leverett transforms the up-and-down material for Ida B. Wells into a solidly successful performance.

"Burnham's Dream: The White City" runs through July 1 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-975-8150 or visit www.theaterwit.org

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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