By Patrick O’Brien
All an architect can hope for is that his or her work will outlast them in some way.
Daniel Burnham, in charge of building Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition, knew full well what he built would only last a few years, but that it should nevertheless stir the soul. Circa 1890, Chicagoans were desperate to give the world something other than hog meat, and they only had three years to come together and spin Utopia out of a southside swamp.
Ticking clocks, civic pride, flamboyant Gilded Age personalities: the crafting of the World Columbian Exposition is fantastic material for a new musical.
It stars an ensemble of the most easygoing hotheads imaginable. Burnham and partner John Root nab the contract to build the Fair. There are obstacles—Who will build what? Who will be represented in exhibits? How does one build a city quickly without sparking a labor riot? How will they outdo Gustave Eiffel’s tower? Say, who’s that Mister Ferris with the wheel contraption? When Root dies, leaving a heavy burden on Burnham’s shoulders. how might Burnham overcome this crisis of confidence?
Sadly, Burnham’s Dream: The White City, currently presented by Lost and Found Productions at Theatre Wit, does nothing with all this promise. Half of these obstacles are dispensed with in one scene at the top of Act Two. Not a lot happens after that. Or before, for that matter.
Well, there is a parade of historical personalities, in reduction. Louis Sullivan, rival architect forced to swallow his modernist pride, stamps about and literally swishes his cape but poses no challenge. Bertha Palmer, philanthropist of Palmer House fame, is a big-hearted society matron interjecting some hearty laughs. Ida B. Wells, intrepid journalist and early civil rights crusader, exists.
The music is pleasant. In fact, all the music is pleasant. This is sometimes a big problem. Sure, “pleasant” works when, say, Root has a rare moment of serenity on his sickbed, visualizing the magnificence to come, or the finale, when his vision comes to pass. “Pleasant” doesn’t work, though, when Chicago’s tetchy “will-we-or-won’t-we” worry about their bid to host the Fair hangs in the air. “Pleasant” works less when Burnham’s wife resigns herself to his increasingly odd hours. “Pleasant” works even less than that when Wells rails against the lingering post-Emancipation prejudices keeping African-Americans from participating in the Fair to their fullest potential.
It certainly doesn’t work when the bullet-point storytelling and rote beat-hitting mean the performers get no purchase to shine. (At its most dire: Burnham’s famous quote, “Make no little plans…” gets dropped. The other characters then comment that it’s a quote for posterity.)
And nothing works when characters who’ve just finished singing recap in dialogue what they just sang.
Direction and choreography don’t gild the flaws in the material, either. It’s men in toppers and waistcoats doing jazz squares. It’s a character falling through a skylight and the audience having to wait a scene to find out he fell through a skylight because the surrounding design is also lacking. It’s dead air as the performers wait for their cue to start singing.
It’s quiet and unassuming. And a piece about Chicago architecture—a piece about the moment that put Chicago on the cultural map—should be a damned assuming thing.
Daniel Burnham could get away with charging money to see the fair being built, because people knew what he was getting at. Burnaham’s Dream needs the biggest of planning to build up and get out of the swamp.
Lost and Found Productions presents “Burnham’s Dream: The White City” at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue, through July 1. More information and tickets are available here.