‘The Great Fire’ burns brightly at Lookingglass

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In “The Great Fire” at Lookingglass, Lindsay Noel Whiting (center, in dress) embodies the fire itself.

History and dramatic storytelling conjoin to explosive effect in “The Great Fire,” writer-director John Musial’s marvelously vivid and imaginative work of theater, dance, music and visual wonderment. And pardon the pun, please, for it is fully in the spirit of this show which so knowingly winks at everything from fire codes and politics to human greed as it spins its story of death and rebirth.

Not only does this altogether consuming 95-minute evocation of the Chicago fire of 1871 capture the heat and chaos of the conflagration that 140 years ago this month swept through four square miles of this city, killed hundreds of people, destroyed more than 17,000 buildings and left great human misery in its wake. But it does so on a stage that sits on the very site of the Water Tower pumping station, one of the very few buildings in the area to survive the fire.

Both the story itself (a tale of monumental destruction, in which the full force of nature meets human unpreparedness), and the Lookingglass telling of it (an act of immense creativity) are enthralling. Most notably, the fire itself is brilliantly embodied by Lindsey Noel Whiting, a fleet yet steely slip of a balletic acrobat, whose blazing red hair and white Victorian-style chemise give her an innocence that belies the devouring, pitiless nature of her “character.” In a finely conceived, wonderfully executed performance, she traps, embraces and wrestles with her victims, oblivious to their efforts to escape her.

The show’s other six actors portray characters high and low on the social scale, with the fire a great equalizer on some (though not all) levels. And the phoenix of a city that rises from the ashes quickly grows into a more modern, flourishing, powerful place than it might ever have been otherwise, even if its new feathers are of a distinctly green (as in money-infused) color.

At the center of the story (in which most of the actors assume multiple roles with exceptional zest and ease), are two families.

Judge Lambert Tree (Troy West, ideally bumptious and a dead ringer in voice and bearing for the Goodman Theatre’s Robert Falls) is a smug, wealthy, self-made man who wields control over his spoiled wife (Stephanie Diaz) but not his adventurous teenage son, Arthur (Thomas J. Cox). Mrs. Lemos (Diaz, in an ideal flip of style and accent) is the poor young widowed Polish immigrant who saves her children from an orphanage and watches over their grandparents. Cheryl Lynn Bruce is terrific as Ald. James Henry Hildreth, the quintessential Chicago political animal. Gary Wingert is the droll firefighter of then and now. And Kevin Douglas is both Judge Tree’s employee and the informal chronicler of history. (Mrs. O’Leary and her cow get their due, too.)

John Dalton’s handsome set (ingeniously lit by Mike Durst) is designed for dramatic self-destruction, with small wooden bird houses suggesting the devastated property, and red cloth flying like sparks throughout. Eric Huffman’s music, the sound design by Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli, and Alison Siple’s costumes add immeasurably to the show’s allure.

Aside from a rather bland, easily fixable final minute or so, this show is a genuine beauty. And it serves as a reminder of all those left behind in the natural and manmade disasters that have swept our globe in recent years.

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