As if taking Daniel Burnham’s famed admonition to “Make no small plans…” very much to heart, the creators of this musical— June Finfer (Books and Lyrics) and Elizabeth Doyle (Music and Lyrics) — have created a script that attempts to tell the comprehensive history of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that marked the 400 th Anniversary of Columbus “discovering” (sic) America.
The story begins just a few years after the Great Chicago Fire. A modern city was emerging from the ashes. Brash young architects battled to leave their imprimatur on the cityscape—including Louis Sullivan (Daniel Leahy) and Daniel Burnham (Pavi Proczo) and his partner John Root (Sam Massey). Wealthy patrons wanted to put Chicago on the world’s map and put in a bid and backing to bring the World’s Fair to Chicago. Burnham and Root are awarded the contract by the city fathers, mainly because of their admiration for Root’s artistic visions.
In this script, the dynamic between Root and Burnham is a large part of the human story, as is Burnham’s neglect of his long suffering wife (Laura Degrenia), who sings a memorably fun song to convey her existential angst about being second fiddle to his career-- Never Marry An Architect. The play goes on to detail how Burnham enlisted high profile New York architects to help, which affords actor Robert J. Brady a chance to charm us as a crotchety Richard Hunt complaining he will never come back to this barely civilized Chicago backwater until May (We agree!). We meet immigrant workers who must build the architects’ visions to reality, sometimes losing life and limb to do so. This too affords a chance for song and dance numbers, Irish flavored, and the chance to revel in the spot-on accent of Chase Wheaton Werle playing Burnham’s assistant Michael O’Malley. We get to feel how amazing the world’s first ferris wheel attraction was with a playful song and dance number, Like a Bicycle Wheel. Add to the mix the persona of feminist socialite Bertha Palmer (Genevieve Thiers) and Ida B. Wells (Arielle Leverett) agitating for inclusion of African Americans in the exposition and a time capsule emerges, perhaps with oblique and sometimes not so oblique references to resonate with our continuingTale of Two Cities in the hashtag moments of our times (#MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, etc.)
For this writer, who finds anachronistic touches in scripts a tad cringe worthy, this isn’t a draw. However, for others who just LOVE putting today’s frame on past events to make them more accessible— as has been done with several other Chicago plays this year‑this could likely make Burnham’s Dream your top pick among Chicago’s performances now.
Do you stop and gawk at the historic markers near Root’s home in the Gold Coast to get an exciting feeling of walking in his foot steps ?? Did you too find the serial killer subplot in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, a mildly annoying distraction from the fascinating high drama of how the Worlds Fair /Columbian Exposition came to be? If so, the content of this show will likely be a strong allure. Or, if you have had the very good fortune of hearing Ken Price give the Palmer House history tour, seeing this play would also be a great encore.
Be forewarned though, that by this writer’s lights, you may leave the theater with a new itch to re-read the book etc. precisely because the promise of the subject matter wasn’t delivered with electricity by this script. The actors are not called upon to do many complicated dance moves or staging that regular Chicago musical theater goers are perhaps spoiled to expect, as in the recent mount of Grand Hotel. Secondly, the score seems to aim for and achieve a period feel—which means, conversely, there isn’t any new musical ground broken. None of the melodies excited this writer’s whistling instincts. And, more than a few high notes were beyond the range of the performers.
Lost and Found Productions Tackles Important Chicago History
All this said, in a city that at one time boasted (apocryphally?) more architects per capita than anywhere else in the world (“..most unemployed..”), where tours of Frank Lloyd Wright homes are an annual ritual, and where the architectural boat tour is a top tourist attraction for the globe— Burnham’s Dream will likely find an audience. Perhaps it’s more surprising that we haven’t seen dozens of plays each year that try to tell this story.
Title: BURNHAM’S DREAM: THE WHITE CITY
Book and Lyrics: June Finfer
Music and Lyrics: Elizabeth Doyle
Director: Erik Wagner
Music Director: Paul W. Thompson
Choreographer: Jessica Texidor
Cast (in alphabetical order): Rob Brady (Richard Hunt, Harlow Higinbotham), Laura Degrenia (Margaret Burnham), Jacob Fjare (Bobbie, Patrick), Michael Kingston (Lyman Gage, Stein), Daniel Leahy (Louis Sullivan), Arielle Leverett (Ida B. Wells), Genevieve Thiers (Bertha Palmer), Sam Massey (John Root), Pavi Proczko (Daniel Burnham) and Chase Wheaton-Werle (Michael O’Malley).
Musicians: Annabelle Revak (pianist/conductor), Taylor Anapol (cello) and Miles Tesar (woodwinds).
Thru July 1
Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3 pm
1229 W. Belmont Ave.
$42. Students & seniors $37
Tickets are currently available at the , by calling (773) 975-8150, or in person at the Theater Wit Box Office
Photos: Evan Hanover
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago