Monday, January 25, 2016

At the Rep Studio, "Georama" spins the tale of America's first moving picture star

P.J. Griffith
Photo: Peter Wochniak
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The musical "Georama," which is getting its world premiere right now in the studio at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, may not be perfect, but has a lot going for it: a great cast, a literate book, a mostly appealing score, and above all, a fascinating story about John Banvard.

“Who the heck is that,” I hear you ask.

The answer is that Banvard, who died in 1891, was a once-famous self-taught American artist whose magnum opus was a 3,000-foot-long panoramic painting of the Mississippi River—the titular "georama."  It was the centerpiece of a one-man show in which Banvard would relate, to musical accompaniment, his adventures traveling on the river while the georama would scroll behind him, illustrating his story.  As the first example of what would later be known as the "moving panorama" genre it was, quite literally, the first "moving picture," and it made Banvard a star.

L-R: P.J. Griffith, Dan Sharkey, Jillian Louis
Photo: Peter Wochniak
At his peak, his fame was worldwide.  He toured Europe beginning in 1846 and even gave a private showing to Britain's Queen Victoria.  Alas, his success resulted in the inevitable imitators, including some promoted by the celebrated P.T. Barnum, whose talent for promotion was superior to Banvard's. 

The artist's attempts to compete with Barnum and his imitators proved unsuccessful, and bad financial decisions, including the construction (on Long Island) of a palatial residence modeled on Windsor Castle, resulted in bankruptcy. Dubbed "Banvard's Folly" by the artist's critics, the estate was later was sold by Banvard to cover debts and eventually became a private beach and tennis club.

Banvard never recovered financially and his legendary painting was eventually cut up and sold.  Today not a trace of it remains, although the St. Louis Art Museum has a panorama almost as large by one of his competitors.  Reliable information on Banvard's life itself has almost disappeared as well, making him (in the words of the opening song) "the most famous man that nobody knows".

Randy Blair
Photo: Peter Wochniak
If you think that all sounds like the basis for a ripping yarn, you'd be right.  Working with primary sources, West Hyler (who also directs) and Matt Schatz (who wrote the music in partnership with Red Clay Ramblers bassist Jack Herrick) have put together a script that, while in need of a bit of tweaking, is nevertheless a fascinating look at the world of late 19th-century showbiz.  The characters, all drawn from real life, are credible.  And while they sometimes speak in obviously anachronistic ways (usually for comic effect), their interactions always ring true.  Moreover, the book's message about the hard choices creative folk have to make between commerce and artistic purity is as relevant today as it was over a century ago

There are, perhaps, a few too many songs.  Not every scene longer than a minute or so needs a musical number, not every aspect of the story needs musical illustration, and a few songs feel like unnecessary filler.  Still, most of the score is an ingenious pastiche of late 19th-century folk and pop styles that serves the story well and provides a nice sense of time and place.  Having the music performed by members of the ensemble also makes transitions into and out of songs seamless.

That brings me to the cast, and an excellent one it is, filled with versatile singing actors.  P.J. Griffith is a model of na├»ve conviction as Banvard while Jillian Louis, as his wife and artistic collaborator Liz, neatly balances him with a believably warm and grounded performance.  She also proves to a respectable pianist.

Randy Blair is the wily P.T. Barnum, conniving his way around the stage, making the most of some clever patter songs, and moving with surprising grace for a man of his girth.  Dan Sharkey brings welcome gravitas to the role of showboat owner and wise friend William Chapman.  Both men also play multiple smaller roles, with Mr. Sharkey getting a plum comic cameo as Queen Victoria.

Jillian Louis and P.T. Griffith
Photo: Peter Wochniak
Emily Mikesell and Jacob Yates are the musicians: Ms. Mikesell is the fiddler with Mr. Yates (who is also the Music Director) on cello and piano.  Their playing is assured and polished, and they also fill in as multiple smaller characters very capably.

Scott C. Neale's simple unit set keeps sight lines clean so that its central feature—his own 600-foot moving panorama—is visible from pretty much the entire house.  Executed in an impressive imitation of period style by artists at The Paint Space on South Kingshighway, the scrolling painting both stands in for Banvard's georama and provides changing backdrops for many of the musical's scenes.  Margaret E. Weedon's historically apt costumes and the simple but effective lighting and sound designs of Ann G. Wrightson and Rusty Wandall complete the job of whisking the audience back to the gaslight era.

"Georama" is new and so not without its issues.  At 90 minutes it is perhaps too long for the one act format; an intermission at about the 50-minute point would give the audience a chance to breathe. And, as noted earlier, the score could do with a bit of a trim—an issue that seems to pop up fairly often in recent musicals. 

That said, "Georama" is solid entertainment and well worth your time.  Performances continue through February 7 in the studio at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

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