Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Review – Immaculate Vibes

(L-R) Sean Donovan, Mary Ernster, Jessica Molaskey, Jason Michael Evans, Kayla Shipman, Tom Hewitt, Bailee Endebrock, McKinley Carter, Wes Olivier, Sierra Boggess and Jarvis B. Manning Jr.
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It was hard to know what to expect going into Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Adapted from John Berendt’s nonfiction book of the same name, with book by Taylor Mac and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, the star-studded cast includes Sierra Boggess and J. Harrison Ghee, so there was certainly an expectation of quality. The plot description, however, is awfully vague, the mentions of a Southern setting and a murder the only real grounding points offered.

(Standing in center, L-R) J. Harrison Ghee and Lance Roberts. (Leaning, L-R) Brianna Buckley, Kayla Shipman, Jessica Molaskey, Jason Michael Evans, Sean Donovan, Sierra Boggess, Mary Ernster, Tom Hewitt, Christopher Kelley, Justin Rivers, Shanel Bailey, Wes Olivier, Bailee Endebrock, McKinley Carter, Andre Malcolm, Calvin L. Cooper and Austin Colby. (Kneeing, L-R) DeMarius R. Copes, Jarvis B. Manning Jr. and Maya Bowles

Having now seen the entire two hour and forty minute production, I can confidently state that I have no clear sense of the overall story, which frankly does not matter to me at all. Influencers on BookTok sometimes describe novels as “no plot, just vibes,” and that’s an apt description for this show. The vibes, though, are immaculate, and I had such a good time, I am unbothered by the fuzzy narrative.

J. Harrison Ghee (center) and ensemble members of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Since I can’t possibly describe the premise of the show, here are some components: a voodoo priestess. A historical preservationist. A nouveau riche restorationist. An unapologetically fabulous trans woman. An angsty hot dude named Danny. Murder. A touring drag show. A movie set, for some reason. A debutante ball. Macarons. Confused yet? It doesn’t matter. It’s all great (with the possible exception of the voodoo, which feels out of place even in this hodgepodge of a show).

(In front, L-R) Tom Hewitt and Sierra Boggess. (In background, L-R) Jessica Molaskey, Sean Donovan and Christopher Kelley

First of all, we have to talk about the music. With the exception of the weird and lugubrious “Sad House,” the songs here slap. Whether it’s a rowdy opening number about drinking culture in Savannah or a moving ballad about self-love, Jason Robert Brown delivers in fine form. Similarly pleasing is Taylor Mac’s snappy dialogue, rife with bawdy, over-the-top humor that largely works (a notable exception is a recurring joke about “triggers” that just seems mean-spirited). The characters are well-developed; a show like this could easily suffer from the same problem as Kinky Boots, where the much more interesting Black drag queen has to play second fiddle to an underdeveloped white male lead, but Jim Williams, the show’s older white male protagonist, is fleshed out and compelling enough that this isn’t the case.

(L-R) Andre Malcolm, Maya Bowles, DeMarius R. Copes, Shanel Bailey, Jarvis B. Manning Jr. and Rory Shirley

The performances are exceptional. Tom Hewitt hits it out of the park as Jim, absolutely oozing Southern charm but also successfully capturing the character’s vulnerabilities. Sierra Boggess is hysterical as antagonist Emma Dawes, hitting all the comedic beats with skill while also lending a certain sinister air to Emma’s obsession with Southern history. But the real gem of the production is J. Harrison Ghee, whose portrayal of the Lady Chablis is packed with fierceness, sass, and a deep sense of humanity. Their powerful rendition of “More Room” brought tears to my eyes and the audience to its feet. 

J. Harrison Ghee

I cannot describe the beginning, middle, and end of the story of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, nor do I have a scrap of an idea what the title has to do with anything, but I’ll tell you this: I left the theatre feeling elated, my faith in humanity restored. I loved the music, I loved the performances, and I loved the message. And in a world as bleak as ours, what higher purpose could a piece of theatre have?

Ticket Information

Location: The Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street

Dates: July 8 – August 11, 2024

Tickets: $40-175. Call 312.443.3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre’s website.

All photos by Liz Lauren.

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