In celebration the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair, the “White City”, inspiration for so many people over all of these years, comes to Theater Wit, a beautifully written and exquisitely performed musical, Burnham’s Dream: The White City with book and lyrics by June Finfer, music and lyrics by Elizabeth Doyle, direction by Erik Wagner, music direction by Paul W. Thompson and choreography by Jessica Texidor.
This topic has fascinated me as long as I can remember. While visiting the Museum of Science and Industry when I was young, then when my children were young, there were photos on the lower level taken at the 1892-3 World’s Fair. The photos fascinated me. “Ours is the only building constructed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’s “White City” that remains at the site. Built as the fair’s Palace of Fine Arts, it is now home to the Western Hemisphere’s largest science museum.” (from the museum’s website) Other related topics I found interesting include, “The Devil and the White City” by Erik Larson, the Chicago Architectural Foundation Tour that includes the buildings mentioned in the book, and the compelling exhibition at the Field Museum that re-enacted the White City in the Opening the Vaults exhibition.
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).
The production team for BURNHAM’S DREAM: THE WHITE CITY includes: José Manuel Díaz-Soto (scenic designer), Alaina Moore (costume designer), Joseph A. Burke (lighting and projection designer), Tim McNulty (sound designer), Christina Casano (assistant director), Andy Lynn (production manager), Endia Brown-Bey (assistant costume designer), Erin Pleake (assistant lighting and projection designer), Nikki Marquardt (stage manager) and Molly Gloeckner (assistant stage manager).
This story begins with the announcement that Chicago had been chosen over New York and Washington, D.C. to host the World’s Fair, leading to the competition for a lead architect and the selection of Daniel Burnham and John Root. Louis Sullivan was not happy with the decision. (The role of Louis Sullivan (Daniel Leahy) lent depth to the production.) The real story of the hardships and suspense that plagued the fair is referred to in this production through songs with great music and crisp lyrics.
I was charmed by the voices as each performer developed a well-defined character. The choreography was charming and well executed. The costumes were perfect, as was the lighting and sound quality with live music. The setting was unusual but worked well to convey many locations, actions and events within the one set.
As I watched the story of a young Chicago fighting for its place in the world, the familiar themes came forward; the immigrant story depicted by Michael O’Malley (Chase Wheaton-Werle), the African-Americans demanding their places at the table via Ida B. Wells, the women wanting their equality and lead by Bertha Palmer who insisted a woman architect design the Women’s Building. One of the strongest and most moving moments was the beautiful song sung by Bertha Palmer (Genevieve Thiers), Ida B. Wells (Arielle Leverett) and Margaret Burnham (Laura Degrenia). The refrain of the song repeated by Ida B. Wells, “Sweet land of liberty, not meant for me” was haunting and poignant.
Margaret Burnham is shown as the “hero” in getting the fair to the finish line. I found her inspiring and was surprised I had not heard of her before. Daniel Burnham, who accomplished so much and whose influence was so far reaching had never gone to college and was not a credentialed architect.
I loved the performance. I felt a sense of pride in Chicago and the people who influenced the city during the time of the 1893 World’s Fair. The fair ultimately changed Chicago and the world. Once the fair opened, it almost took on a life of its own. I think that BURNHAM’S DREAM: THE WHITE CITY could handle a larger venue and it would be great if it could broaden it reach to tell the world this uplifting and inspiring story.
I asked June Finfer what inspired her to write this story. She said the architecture of the period always fascinated her. In the spirit of Daniel Burnham who advised that one “make no small plans”, I, for one, hope this show soars. Go see it!
Location: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Dates: Previews: Saturday, June 2 at 7:30 pm, Sunday, June 3 at 3 pm and Monday, June 4 at 7 pm
Press performance: Tuesday, June 5 at 7 pm
Regular run: Thursday, June 7 – Sunday, July 1, 2018
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm
Tickets: Previews $30. Regular run $42. Students & seniors $37 ($25 previews). Discounts available for groups of 10 or more.
Tickets are currently available at the theaterwit website, by calling (773) 975-8150, or in person at the Theater Wit Box Office.