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Georama
Book by West Hyler and Matt Schatz
Music and Lyrics by Matt Schatz
Directed by West Hyler
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 23, 2016

Jillian Louis, P.J. Griffith Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jillian Louis, P.J. Griffith
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Once upon a time, before photography was common or practical, and way before movies, the best way to see parts of the world you couldn’t visit was through paintings. Many of those huge panoramic paintings, and their painters, are now largely lost to history, but the Rep Studio’s latest World Premiere production, the musical Georama, is shining the spotlight back on one such painter, John Banvard, whose subject matter was the colossal, rolling Mississippi River. Taking the audience back in time to the 1840’s through song, story, and an impressively painted scrolling backdrop, Georama is a delight.

The story is framed as something of a folk tale, with Banvard (P.J. Griffith) as its hero, who according to the prologue is “the most famous man that you ain’t never heard of”. Two traveling musicians (Emily Mikesell, Jacob Yates) narrate the tale at various points and provide the musical accompaniment. It’s a folksy, Americana-ish score, with styles reminiscent of 19th century popular songs and more modern folk/country music to set the mood. As Banvard starts his career, he’s an itinerant portrait painter, until he’s discovered by aspiring showman and entrepeneur Taylor (Randy Blair) and goes to work painting backdrops on a showboat run by William Chapman (Dan Sharkey). The idea of a scrolling panorama is eventually born, and after some disagreements about promotion, Banvard strikes out on his own to explore the river and do more painting. He then meets up with Elizabeth (Jillian Louis), a pastor’s daughter and aspiring musician who has the idea of adding music to Banvard’s presentations. She joins him in his travels, and the operation grows in scope and renown, eventually ending up in London, while they eventually re-encounter Taylor, who has made his success under a slightly different form of his name, which I won’t spoil here but will be instantly recognized. As Banvard’s fame grows, however, so do his conflicts, as he and Elizabeth deal with differing priorities and the very nature and purpose of art, family, and home.

The form here works very well for this piece. The Rep’s studio space has been changed around to create an old-fashioned stage setup, with a magnificent scrolling panorama that serves as Banvard’s “Georama” and also as incidental backgrounds at various moments in the show. Set designer Scott C. Neale and scenic artists Emily Frei and Ryan Marshall have created a wondrous atmosphere with a richly detailed painting that, when scrolling, creates the sense of movement across the wide American countryside along the great Mississippi river, as well as showcasing other locations like London and New York. The costumes, designed by Margaret Weedon, are also impressively detailed. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting Rusty Wandall’s sound also contribute to the overall effect. The music is also expertly performed by Mikesell and Yates, as well as Louis on the piano and harmonium.

As Banvard, Griffith brings just the right blend of qualities for a likable if conflicted hero. He’s got lots of charm, and a strong singing voice, as well as good comic ability when needed. His chemistry with Louis’s determined, feisty Elizabeth is excellent as well. Louis has a particularly impressive singing voice on ballads and more upbeat songs alike. Blair is appropriately ingratiating and scheming as the ambitious Taylor, and Sharkey is a standout in various roles, including the initially imposing but ultimately sympathetic Chapman. Sharkey also has a delightful scene-stealing moment as Queen Victoria, delivering top-notch comic relief when the show arrives in London, with the hilarious and ever-so-slightly risque song “Just a Little”. Mikesell and Yates make engaging narrators, as well.

The show does have a few minor issues, such as occasional clunky lyrics and awkward rhymes, as well as a story structure that moves a little too quickly in the second act.  Still, it’s a remarkable achievement and a thoroughly entertaining presentation telling the story of a once-celebrated artist who has mostly faded from the history books. Georama takes its audience on a tour of the Mississippi River and 19th Century America and beyond with heart, energy, a tuneful score, and a great cast. And that painting is a wonder in itself.

Randy Blair Photo by P.J. Griffith Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Randy Blair
Photo by P.J. Griffith
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Georama runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre until February 7th, 2016

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