‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ at the Goodman is built on creative team surprises

The key to a successful musical adaptation goes deeper than the selection of the source material.

Turning John Berendt’s Southern Gothic novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” into a captivating theatrical experience required an award-winning creative team assembled by a native Southerner, director Rob Ashford, and the backing of a trio of Broadway producers.

It took Ashford 10 years to bring “Midnight” to the stage. When the production begins previews on June 25 at the Goodman Theatre, the musical aims to recreate the culturally rich and eccentric world of historic Savannah, Georgia, where the true crime novel unfolds.

‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’

When: June 25-Aug. 4

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Ticket: $25-$175

Info: goodmantheatre.org

“It just feels like a melange of a lot of different people and things and histories all just kind of living together in a great sexy harmony somehow,” said Ashford, who grew up in West Virginia and attended college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “That’s what it felt like to me. So I thought about how exciting it would be to try to bring that to the stage.”

Sitting outside of the theater at the Goodman during a recent tech rehearsal, Ashford said he was always attracted to the Southern Gothic charm of the novel, which follows the story of Jim Williams, an antiques dealer on trial for the murder of a male prostitute. A New York Times best seller, the book was adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey in 1997.

It took director Rob Ashford a decade to bring “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” to the stage.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/ Sun-Times

To summon Savannah’s historic Bonaventure Cemetery for a stage in Chicago (and possibly Broadway down the road),   Ashford tapped a gifted musical director, Jason Robert Brown, whom he’d worked with on the Tony Award-winning “Parade” for its London run. To write the story for the stage, Ashford recruited MacArthur Fellow and Tony-nominated playwright Taylor Mac, while turning to up-and-comer Tanya Birl-Torres, whom he’d known for 15 years, for the choreography. (The production is backed by Broadway producers Hal Luftig, Craig Haffner and Sherry Wright.)

Ashford charged each member of the creative team with bringing a unique flavor to the project, with the overarching theme of “being comfortable with your true and unique self.”

“We are really pushing as far to the edges of what a musical can do as I’ve ever seen,” said Brown, whose list of Tony accolades also includes the Broadway hit “The Bridges of Madison County.” “I find it very exciting.”

During the recent tech rehearsal, the theater is alive. The cast of 26 performers — which Ashford says is a 50-50 split of New York and Chicago actors — wear early versions of costumes. Lush Spanish moss dominates the stage. Ashford speaks on the “God-mic,” which allows for his voice to be heard throughout the theater, as he gives direction on movements for the opening number “Bonaventure,” which is set in the cemetery. Each character is singing about what they love about Savannah.

Kayla Shipman and Jason Michael Evans (kneeling on left) rehearse a scene from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” along with Andre Malcolm (from left), Maya Bowles, Shanel Bailey, DeMarius R. Copes, Brianna Buckley, Rory Shirley and Jarvis B. Manning Jr. at the Goodman Theatre.

Liz Lauren

The creative team began the process of building this production with a series of research trips to Savannah to get a real feel for the community where the story takes place.

“Our [set] designer Christopher Oram, who is a collaborator of mine for many shows over many years, was the first person I asked to be a part of this,” Ashford said. “He was really excited about all the different colored bricks and the way that bricks were used in Savannah, and the Spanish moss.”

Tanya Birl-Torres said trips to study the culture and history of Savannah informed her approach to the dance design for “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Birl-Torres, who also serves as cultural consultant and intimacy coordinator in addition to choreographer, said the research trip introduced her to the cultural history of the town. She admires the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, who like her are creative Black women. As they would, Birl-Torres approached the project as an anthropologist.

In Savannah, Birl-Torres learned the town’s history as a slave port, and about its connections to Gullah Geechee culture, as well as its Voodoo and Hoodoo practices and the roots of Christianity in the Black church.

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But she was particularly struck by the cemeteries, she reveals. The huge mausoleums and monuments to power and prestige caught her eye, yet she found inspiration in the finer details.

“Our tour guide told us that the little tiny gravestones that are around [the monuments], that mark the pathways of every grave, were built by the slaves who were there,” she said. “When you come and see the show, that is in my choreography. Those pathways. I wanted to honor that.”

Jason Robert Brown subverted the idea that a large-scale musical piece should have a certain stylistic coherence throughout in “Midnight.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

For the music, Brown leaned into the idea of the uniqueness of the different characters in the story when creating the score. From Savannah, the creative process took the collaborators to New York — and Brown’s piano.

“We were working on a gospel, blues number,” said Birl-Torres. “And it’s telling the story of a young Black girl coming into her womanhood.” Brown had no personal connection to such an experience, so he asked Birl-Torres to describe it. Then, based on her description, Brown was able to play her emotions, in a feat Birl-Torres described as “magical.” She created the choreography from there.

“One of the main points of the novel is that there are all of these subcultures coexisting — some of which never interact with each other at all,” said Brown. “But part of what makes Savannah Savannah is the existence of all of these shadow societies, all with their own rules. So, my intention, musically, was to honor that.”

Brown did so by allowing different characters to have their own sounds. He deliberately subverted the idea that a large-scale musical piece should have a certain stylistic coherence throughout. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, assigning each subculture in Savannah its own musical genre.

The character of Jim Williams (played by Tom Hewitt), the antiques dealer who is born working-class, gets a musical vernacular in the style of Broadway and pop composer Johnny Mercer (who is actually from Savannah and has familial ties to the story). Williams’ lover in the story, Danny Hansford (Austin Colby), has a sound that is a Lynyrd Skynyrd-type of Southern, noisy, guitar rock. For the high-class, old-money Savannah society characters, Brown went for a comic opera sound.

But the musical really centers around a trans woman and drag performer named Lady Chablis, portrayed by Tony and Grammy Award winner J. Harrison Ghee. To bring Lady Chablis to the stage, Brown developed her songs with an early ‘80s R&B sound.

“I’ve got all of those noises happening all the time,” said Brown. “And that’s sort of the joy of the show. Just letting each of those languages be complete in and of themselves.”

For book writer Mac, the decision to focus on Lady Chablis came from his own experience reading the novel in 1994. He recalled being amazed at how a book with a queer story at its core could captivate American audiences.

“The Lady Chablis kind of stole the book for me,” Mac said. “So, I wanted to tell that story. The story of somebody who is considered an outsider in a world of outsiders.”

Taylor Mac adapted “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” for the stage musical.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Mac’s book eventually places the Lady Chablis at its heart, but his method of doing so is not a traditional arc. The story starts with Jim Williams, and the murder, but then shifts protagonists, an atypical structure, Mac said.

“Usually, you have your protagonist and you go with them. And you know who [the protagonist] is through the whole musical, and you end with them having accomplished something,” Mac said via Zoom. “But with this story, it felt like Chablis needed to become our protagonist, rather than start off in that position.”

Similar to how the creative team provided stylistic surprises, the story itself contains more than what meets the eye.

“It is a whodunnit but it is deeper than that,” said Ashford. “I think it’s a real study of the class system in our world and in our country that we don’t focus on a lot. And the pressure to try to fit into that structure, and the people who care less about it and just want to survive, have a good time and become something other than what they’re expected to be.”

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