Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: the Concert

Johnny Mercer, we are told in John Berendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, never lived in Mercer House, the grand Victorian mansion his great-grandfather built in Savannah, Georgia. But Mercer is a strong presence throughout Berendt’s account of the 1981 shooting of a 21-year-old hustler by the owner of Mercer House, gay antiques dealer Jim Williams–an event that anchors Berendt’s fascinating foray into Savannah’s eccentric, steamy, and sometimes eerie demimonde. So when writer-director (and ex-porn star) Jack Wrangler first brought Berendt’s best-seller to the stage–in 1995, before it was made into a movie–he discarded traditional modes of theatrical adaptation in favor of a music-and-spoken-word performance, melding passages from the book with selections from the vast repertoire of songs Mercer wrote with composers like Harold Arlen and Henry Mancini. Since its debut, at the ’95 JVC Jazz Festival at Lincoln Center, it has been much reworked, and aims to capture the rich flavor of the book that Clint Eastwood’s film only began to suggest. The wide dramatic range of Mercer’s lyrics make it easy for Wrangler and musical director Don Rebic to match script and song in a sometimes complementary, sometimes ironic way. The jaunty “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” for instance, amplifies a description of Mercer House and Williams’s pride (as he told Berendt in the book) in “living like an aristocrat without the burden of having to be one”; the dreamily aching “Days of Wine and Roses” (a literary tour de force whose text consists only of two luxuriously spun-out sentences) “summarizes the sense of Savannah’s secretiveness, its yearning for youth and wanting to maintain the way things were,” as Wrangler puts it. Produced by jazz veteran George Wein and presented by CAPA, the Columbus-based agency that operates the Chicago Theatre, this touring show features an impressive array of jazz, cabaret, and Broadway talent, including singers Margaret Whiting, Kevin Mahogany, Cynthia Scott, Claiborne Cary, and Mark McVey, guitarist Mundell Lowe, and cornetist Warren Vache. There are also two figures who’ll be familiar to anyone who’s read the book: Emma Kelly, the venerable Savannah piano-bar icon who began singing with Mercer’s encouragement, and the sassy drag diva Lady Chablis, who, Wrangler notes, is “the only person who ever got the entire audience at the Kennedy Center to go ‘Hello, bitch!'” Thursday, September 30, 7:30 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 312-443-1130 or 312-902-1500. ALBERT WILLIAMS