J. Harrison Ghee and the cast of the Goodman's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
J. Harrison Ghee and the cast of the Goodman’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Photo by Liz Lauren.

The queers are out: floral dresses, pearl headpieces, black-net fascinators, rainbow bead earrings sported shine resplendent in the lobby of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. A DJ spins a mix of old-school Destiny’s Child, along with new kids Reneé Rapp and Megan Thee Stallion while a diverse array of Chicago’s vibrant queer community kikis over themed cocktails, snaps selfies against backgrounds resplendent with hyper-realistic Spanish moss, and squees over the prospect of sharing space with theatrical legends Jason Robert Brown, Taylor Mac and J. Harrison Ghee, and their hopes of winning a trip to Savannah, GA. 

This isn’t your average Pride party. The sold-out crowd has arrived for the first performance of the world premiere musical adaption of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The Goodman will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2025 and has firmly planted itself as one of Chicago’s premiere producers of new works and classics. The Tony-winning company has cultivated a dedicated an LGBTQ+ audience and shined a spotlight on queer narratives, including last season’s world premiere of Layalina and next spring’s production of James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Fat Ham

Associate Director of Engagement Demi Smith says Pride Night OUT! in conjunction with Midnight’s first performance was a fabulous fit.

“We’re in Chicago, and we have a beautiful LGBTQIA+ community,” Smith told Queerty, raising her voice to be heard among the rainbow-clad revelers. “We wanted to make sure [the community] felt included and part of the celebration for our own Pride kickoff, as well as our first preview. So why not have a party together?”

Guests at the Goodman Theatre's Pride Night OUT!
Guests at the Goodman Theatre’s Pride Night OUT! Photo by Hugo Hentoff.

Chicago theater artist Christopher Pazdernik sported a festive day dress and was eager for the show. “I am just so excited to see a new Jason Robert Brown musical — wild horses couldn’t keep me away,” they said. “I was planning to come to [the] first preview anyway, but then when Goodman rolled out the Pride Night promo, I was like, wait, new musical theater and a free drink? I couldn’t get here fast enough.”

Another Pride Night partygoer, Linda Fay, is part of GeNarrations, a Goodman workshop in which individuals age 55 and over develop and perform personal narrative pieces based on themes of current Goodman productions. “I came because of Pride,” she said. “It’s only once a year!”

A gay crime takes center stage

Tom Hewitt, left, and J. Harrison Ghee in the Goodman's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Tom Hewitt, left, and J. Harrison Ghee in the Goodman’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Photo by Liz Lauren.

First released in 1994, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a true crime “nonfiction novel” chronicling the aftermath of the 1981 death in Savannah, Georgia, in which millionaire antique dealer Jim Williams shot his sometimes-lover, a volatile hustler named Danny Hansford

Four trials later, a jury acquitted Williams, and author John Berendt, who met Williams in 1982 and subsequently lived in Savannah for five years, published the landmark New York Times bestseller. A 1997 film adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey received decidedly mixed reviews but offered us an early look at a young, hunky Jude Law as the ill-fated victim. (Law had a queer year on film, also starring as Sir Alfred Douglas in Wilde.)

Midnight also featured the quirky locals of 1980s Savannah, who Berendt spent time with while researching the crime and attending Williams’ third and fourth trials. One standout is The Lady Chablis, a Black trans female entertainer whose colorful commentary acts as a humorous contrast to the darkness at the story’s center. The Lady Chablis played herself in Eastwood’s 1997 film, an early representation of transness to mainstream audiences.

Thirty years after the book’s release, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil premieres at the Goodman with an all-star team: music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, headed to Broadway this season with Nick Jonas and Adrienne Warren), a book by queer playwright and MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Taylor Mac (Orlando, 24-Hour History of Popular Music) and a cast of luminaries including J. Harrison Ghee (one of the first openly nonbinary Tony Award winners for Some Like It Hot) as The Lady Chablis.

This garden needs fertilizer

(l to r) Austin Colby, Bailee Endebrock, McKinley Carter, Mary Ernster, Kayla Shipman and Jessica Molaskey in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Austin Colby, left, and the cast of the Goodman’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.’ Photo by Liz Lauren.

Decades before “viral news” was part of the lexicon, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil took off. At its heart, it’s a story of intrigue, queer pride, and shame, and preserving an image at all costs. 

The musical, in its current state (given the high-profile creative team and cast, likely has eyes on a Broadway transfer), fails to grasp the story’s power. Most deflating is the musical’s disregard for a crucial part of Berendt’s novel: an outsider’s observation and commentary. 

Instead, expect odd shoehorned subplots, unnecessary audience participation, and a general disregard for the sudden, mysterious death at the story’s center. (The latter takes place early in the book and effectively sets the tone, but the musical inexplicably moves it to the Act I finale). 

Midnight itself is no stranger to rearranging the truth: the book was dubbed a “nonfiction novel” because the author took liberties with the timeline and with certain “characters” he interviewed. However, turning a juicy exploration of crime, facade, and dark humor into a slapstick musical comedy does little to reimagine the source material.

Brown’s score feels like a work in progress, but it does have its sweet spots. Act II’s “Clap on One and Three” is a jaunty production number celebrating the triumph of Black women, and “Reasonable Doubt,” which transports us from Jim’s annual holiday soiree to his murder trial within one turn of phrase, recalls Chicago in its laughter-turns-tragic sensibility. The latter, and moments from Mac’s book that include a dead Danny — bullet holes in his chest — as a specter of Jim’s conscience for almost an entire act, hint at the real horrors at Midnight’s core and a haunting reminder of what the musical could be if its creators can recalibrate its tone.

As The Lady Chablis, Ghee displays their signature charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent (yes, we went there) that earned them a historical Tony win, rocking multiple sequined gowns — sometimes in the same production number — and high-kicking in heels throughout. While the real-life Lady Chablis was a breakout star of Midnight’s original book and its 1997 movie, spilling tea and living her truth while the rest of Savannah buried their heads in the sand, the story is not entirely about her. 

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has a ways to go before it blooms, but its origin story is one ripe for exploration.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil plays at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre through August 11.

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