Georama is a gem!
I’m always excited for an evening of theatre! Each trip I make to The Rep feels like a special occasion, so the opportunity to settle in for a world premiere show was as much an honor as it was a treat. Of course, “new” doesn’t automatically equate to “good,” but Georama is both!
Have you ever heard of an artist by the name of John Banvard? If the answer is “no,” don’t worry; you’re not the only one. As the show’s opening song notes, “You’ve never seen his paintings, and you ain’t heard his prose, he’s the most famous man that nobody knows!” And that’s exactly what fascinated playwright West Hyler about Banvard’s incredible yet unacknowledged legacy. Despite the fact that Banvard created the world’s first georama (or panorama) in the mid-1800s, it seems the world has all but forgotten the artist and his work—which is bizarre considering he travelled the globe with his astonishing 3,000-foot painting! Unfortunately, his endeavors were never any match for “the next big thing”—whether that was a technological innovation like photography or the get-rich-quick schemes of his business partner turned competitor, PT Barnum.
“I was immediately interested in the story of this once-famous American artist who has been completely forgotten by time,” Hyler explained.
Hyler and his partner on this project, Matt Schatz, dug up as much information as they could about Banvard in order to create a musical that would give the world a second chance to know him.
When the show begins, we see Banvard (P.J. Griffith) doing what he does best, painting. He wasn’t interested in portraying people in his work. The mighty Mississippi river was his main muse, as this body of water featured colors he felt couldn’t be seen elsewhere. A boisterous man known simply as Taylor (Randy Blair) notices his amazing artwork and recruits him on the spot to create beautiful backdrops for his stage shows. Although Banvard was neither motivated by cash nor desperate for it at the time, he takes the offer—a decision that ultimately changes the tide of his life for better and eventually worse. It was during his brief partnership with Taylor when he recognized the need for moving scenery and created just that! He quit not long after, but he didn’t leave that job empty-handed. He’d made the first georama and by golly it wouldn’t be the last! His life of adventure on the Mississippi eventually leads him to a church where he unexpectedly meets his next creative collaborator, Elizabeth (Jillian Louis), who offers to compose music to accompany his moving images. This is when the tale really takes off!
Georama is a gem. The Rep’s small studio theatre offers an intimate experience, which enhances the emotions of this production in a powerful way. It truly is the epitome of their motto, “Live theatre so close you can feel it.” There’s 24 musical numbers packed into less than two hours of show, which sounds like a lot, but doesn’t feel like a lot in the moment. In fact, Schatz’s and Jack Herrick’s music and lyrics are so phenomenal, you’ll wish there had been twice as many songs and find yourself wishing you could listen to them all over again on the drive home. I’ve been telling everyone I know to get to this show! There’s been plenty of shows come through St. Louis that I’ve wanted to see more than once during their brief stay, but Georama is one I wish I could return to several times with different friends and family members, as much to see their reactions as to experience this exquisite production again myself. There’s no way you could possibly forget who John Banvard is after attending Georama. You’ll likely feel inspired to join Hyler in his effort to share the story of “the most famous man that nobody knows.” I know I have (without giving away any spoilers, of course)! | Megan Washausen
Georama runs at The Rep through February 7. For ticket info, visit repstl.org.
Photo: Peter Wochniak