By Cate Marquis, Staff Writer
What did people do for entertainment in the 19th century, before the invention of photography, movies, and all the media we have now? One thing they did was go to live shows like a famous one featuring a “georama”—an enormous painted panoramic landscape of scenes along the Mississippi River. Mounted on rollers, the enormous painting was scrolled across the stage, making viewers feel as if they were on a river trip from St. Louis to New Orleans. The georama predated movies and the invention of photography, and it was wildly popular with audiences. It made John Banvard, the man who painted it and presented it to audiences in touring shows across the country and in Europe, both famous and rich. Yet today he is forgotten and his groundbreaking painting is lost.
“Georama” tells the story of Banvard through a lively musical on stage in the Repertory Theater of St. Louis’ smaller studio performance space, set to run through February 7.
Playwright West Hyler was inspired to create the play after reading about the once-famous, now-forgotten Banvard’s rise to fame and fall into obscurity, but there are both comedy and tragedy in the play. Hyler co-wrote the musical with Matt Schatz, who provided music and lyrics, with additional music and lyrics by Jack Herrick. Hyler also directs the production.
The Rep’s performance is the world premiere of “Georama”—fitting since Banvard found his first success in St. Louis. The story opens in St. Louis, where struggling painter Banvard (P.J. Griffith) is approached by an on-the-skids showman named Taylor (Randy Blair) about painting backdrops for William Chapman’s (Dan Sharkey) first-ever showboat. But Banvard has a better idea: a large panoramic painting mounted on rollers that scrolls across the stage, giving the audience the feeling of motion, of floating down the river.
Sharkey plays a number of roles, including the pastor father of Banvard’s musical accompanist Elizabeth (Jillian Louis) and Queen Elizabeth. The surprising story features not just the queen but showman P.T. Barnum. Musicians Emily Mikesell and Jacob Yates provide live music as well as some narration and various characters.
The play mixes fact and fiction, but all the characters are real people. With only a handful of actors and a few props on a wooden thrust stage, the performance is dominated by its other star—the large, scrolling painting created for the production. One of the highlights of “Georama,” the beautiful scrolling painting, serves as a backdrop for scenes and a recreation of Banvard’s enormous landscape painting. The painting is hand-cranked during the show.
The music is good, but there is an awful lot of it, so much that one sometimes wishes for more story and less singing. This is particularly true in the scenes about Banvard’s biggest career success and his English tour. Despite being a fairly short play with no intermission, there are 24 songs, including four reprises. There is so much singing that “Georama” almost seems like an opera.
On the other hand, there are many positives—the delightful scrolling painting, wonderful acting, and clever staging in the small space. Griffith is appealing as Banvard, as is Louis as his business partner/wife Elizabeth. Blair has the major comedy part as the slippery showman Taylor and makes the most of it. But tall, angular Sharkey, who plays a number of parts, pretty much steals the show playing Queen Elizabeth, singing about wanting her entertainments to have “a little sex,” in the hilarious “Just a Little.”
The production, players, and story are all charming in “Georama,” as is much of the music. One just wishes for a little more story and a little less singing in the telling of this fascinating true tale.