The story of Chicago’s White City and the 1893 World’s Fair might very well contain the building blocks of a fine musical. The gleaming exhibition halls of the 690-acre “city-within-a-city” brought millions of people from across the planet to Chicago. The epic event introduced the world to Cracker Jacks, the Ferris wheel, zippers, chewing gum and — in the person of H. H. Holmes — the nation’s first known serial killer. The Field Museum is one of the most visible remnants of the fairgrounds’ White City. The creation of that city, spearheaded by architects Daniel Burnham and John Root, helped transform Chicago from a place known primarily for the stink of its stockyards into a world-class, modern metropolis.
‘Burnham’s Dream: The White City’
When: Through July 1
Where: Lost and Found Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Run time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
Sadly, Elizabeth Doyle (music and lyrics) and June Finfer’s (book and lyrics) world-premiere production of “Burnham’s Dream: The White City,” offers only a glimpse of the outsized personalities and dramas embedded in the creation of the White City. A lackluster score delivered by a crew of two-dimensional characters render this potentially thrilling tale pedestrian and plodding.
Some of the production’s problems defy fixing, despite director Erik Wagner’s earnest staging. Primary among them: There’s nobody to root for here. The ostensible hero — an underwritten Daniel Burnham (Pavi Proczko) — comes across as an obnoxious adolescent rather than a gifted, ground-breaking architect.
Burnham’s blatant racism (he was a product of his time, to be sure) and the galvanizing work of journalist and social justice crusader Ida B. Wells (Arielle Leverett) are reduced to a few bullet points. Wells champions the need for inclusion. Burnham claims that an exhibit of African natives (complete with their own mud huts) proves the fair is representative of all people. When the lead character is this unappealing and shallow, it’s tough to make the rest of the show work.
Architect Louis Sullivan (Daniel Leahy) doesn’t help matters: He’s a childish sniveler who spends the show pouting because he wasn’t chosen to design the fair. Bertha Palmer (Genevieve Thiers, sounding like a cross between Julia Child and Dame Edna) gives voice to women’s issues, but like Wells, her scripted words sound like text pulled from an uninspired junior high history text.
The fair itself – a stupendous accomplishment of truly Herculean scope – is reduced to a series of sometimes muddy projections (by Joseph A. Burke) rippling across what appear to be bedsheets rigged around scenic designer Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s scaffolding-heavy set.
Finally, other than an ongoing rush to meet construction deadlines and a seemingly out-of-nowhere death midway through the story, “Burnham’s Dream” has a flatline narrative arc.
Burnham drives the narrative (such as it is) forward, while his long-suffering wife Margaret (Laura Degrenia) pines for her workaholic spouse and plaintively longs to be a collaborative partner in his creations. Burnham, however, changes very little over the course of the story. His complicated collaboration with Root (a pleasant but bland Sam Massey) sags where it should be taut, and fizzles when it should be searing. Their arguments are more schoolboy sniping than clash-of-titans.
All could be (mostly) forgiven if Doyle’s score captured the novelty and the exuberant excitement that gripped the city in the run-up to the fair. What we get instead is a by-the-numbers series of ultimately forgettable songs.
It doesn’t help that the cast often substitutes pitch for volume, barreling through wavering notes as if loudness could rectify slipping off-key. Music director Paul Thompson’s three-person chamber orchestra is off to the side and obscured behind a scrim for the duration of the musical. It’s tough to know whether to blame the acoustics or the musicianship, but either way, the sound is tinny and hollow.
That hollowness also plagues the dialogue. The characters don’t engage with each other; they make speeches at each other. And that’s the core problem embedded in the foundation of “Burnham’s Dream.” Finfer’s book gives us the broad outlines of the fair’s momentous accomplishments, without ever going much deeper than the gold leaf Sullivan favored for Auditorium Theatre’s gilded ornamentation.
When nobody on stage appears much more than a cartoon, it’s tough to become invested in their story. This is a tale that should soar like the fair’s iconic Ferris wheel. Instead, it never gets off the ground.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.