Story: Struggling artist John Banvard loved painting more than the menial labor jobs he would reluctantly take to survive. One day circa 1840, as he sits on a dock sketching scenes of the adjacent Mississippi River, his work catches the eye of a flamboyant huckster named Taylor.
The latter has just been jettisoned from his job promoting a showboat operated by an Englishman named William Chapman. The boat is listing financially and needs an economic fix in order to stay afloat.
Taylor is convinced that Banvard’s sweeping sketches of the river will attract customers, but Chapman says they need something more. Banvard soon is inspired to create a ‘georama,’ a painting on a canvas hundreds of feet long that unwinds on a giant spool.
The idea takes off, as do the careers of the artist and the two businessmen. Eventually Banvard leaves, going out on his own with an attractive young composer named Elizabeth who agrees to journey with him and write background music for his paintings.
They achieve considerable success until Banvard makes a series of disastrous business decisions that take them from wealth to near impoverishment. Still, Elizabeth holds out hope that her beloved John will once again understand the priorities between art and fame and remember who he once was.
Highlights: What a wondrous musical is this world premiere written by West Hyler and Matt Schatz, following its initial development in a workshop at The Rep’s own Ignite! readings for new plays in 2014. Two short years later,
Other Info: In the fine tradition of “truth is stranger than fiction,” Hyler first learned about the real-life Banvard when he read a short story by Paul Collins titled Banvard’s Folly that was written in 2001.
Information on the 19th century artist is scarce, but Hyler and his creative team found some books by Banvard in the Library of Congress. Included was a guidebook sold by the painter at his shows that included a script and accompanying sheet music for his ‘Georama.’
Banvard’s creations essentially were the forerunners of ‘motion pictures’ that still dominate our culture today, as well as the precursor to the photograph, which dealt a death blow to the ‘panoramas’ that flourished under the promotion of legendary showman P.T. Barnum in America and Europe in the mid-19th century.
As for the show itself, Georama is a captivating delight as written by Hyler and Schatz, who also composed the music and wrote the lyrics, with additional music and lyrics by Jack Herrick. Hyler himself deftly directs the world premiere presentation, a nifty, 90-minute, one-act performance that could easily be divided into two acts (and may eventually be so) without diluting its impact.
Under the musical direction of Jacob Yates, the music has a distinctive folk style played infectiously by Yates at the piano and Emily Mikesell on the fiddle. The show opens with a delightful number called Nobody Knows, an explanation of who the famous John Banvard once was and how he eventually fell into obscurity despite his talents.
Hyler’s cast is uniformly engaging and entertaining as they immerse themselves into this upbeat but still sobering tale of an incredible individual who could not escape his own destiny. P.J. Griffith does a fabulous job bringing this representation of the real Banvard to life, showing the man’s passion for his art and love for Elizabeth as well as his descent into self-destruction.
Jillian Louis complements him beautifully as Elizabeth, a woman who bucks the pressure of her minister father, who warns John in the tune Make Things People Need to learn a paying trade, and leaves her frontier home for a lifetime of adventures with the handsome young artist.
Dan Sharkey doubles as Elizabeth’s pragmatic but loving father and also as the wise entrepreneur Chapman, who attempts to save John from himself when they meet again years later in London. As Taylor, Randy Blair brings the fast-talking, shady barker to glorious life with his insightful knack for giving people what they want, albeit under the illusion of accuracy.
Margaret Weedon’s costumes depict the resplendently gaudy togs worn by Taylor as well as the utilitarian attire of the musicians and the styles of the era favored by the other characters. Scott Neale’s scenic design features a handsomely rustic set on either side of a wooden-floor performance area that houses knick-knacks reminiscent of a dock area. Ann Wrightson adds richly complementary lighting, especially of the georama, while Rusty Wandall provides the sound design.
A major star in the production is an actual georama (the term preferred by Banvard) painting that scrolls through approximately 600 feet of scenic backdrops painted by artists at The Paint Space in South St. Louis from Neale’s original concepts. It is an impressive accomplishment that vibrantly accentuates the musical story of the man who originated these 19th century artistic marvels.
The Rep’s program essay for Georama notes that the only known surviving Mississippi River panorama is in the Saint Louis Art Museum collection.
Georama is handsomely crafted and filled with more than a few surprising elements, an enchanting musical journey into a fascinating and little-known chapter of American history.
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through February 7
Tickets: $50-$65; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.