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BWW Review: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Outstanding New Musical GEORAMA

Thanks to the developmental work that occurred during The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Ignite! Play Festival in 2014 we now have the opportunity to witness the fruit of their labors; the world premier of a very entertaining new musical called GEORAMA. This play tells a fascinating story that is truly a forgotten piece of history that deserves to be celebrated. This production is staged in the Studio Theatre of the Loretto-Hilton, and that adds additional atmosphere and intimacy that makes the story connect in a uniquely vibrant manner. As an avid film fan, I'd read a bit about the history of "motion pictures", and found countless early examples of flip books, and the like, but nothing prepared me for the sadly neglected tale of John Banvard, who created a virtual recreation of the wonders of the Mississippi River on a scrolling canvas that stretched for miles. That's quite a feat, and so is this staging. I cannot recommend it highly enough! It's truly a show that deserves an audience both young and old to appreciate, or become aware of, something that was truly as magical as the spectacle this artist created.

A starving young sketch artist named John Banvard is happened upon by a man known as Taylor. He's a rotund performer who has suddenly found himself at loose ends after his act flopped on a riverboat run by William Chapman. Taylor sees his providence in Banvard, and initially gets the pair hired back as a package deal, with Banvard consigned to creating backdrops. But, soon and idea is hatched by the young painter to create something beyond a mere panorama. Taylor quickly names the project the "Georama", and it becomes a hit. Chapman is convinced by Taylor to try and get Banvard to take the act overseas, but instead he strikes out on his own, meeting up with Elizabeth as he attempts to regale an audience with his paintings and stories of life on the river. She sees the potential and with her own compositional talents brings his words to life. By the time he arrives in England, Taylor, whose real name would be a spoiler, has hired a plethora of artists to do imitate his genius, along with other exotic locales. Disillusioned, he searches for grander things, but is foiled in his pursuits, even by the advent of photography, until he returns to Elizabeth to renew their love and shared sense of adventure.

P.J. Griffith is well cast as tortured artist John Banvard, and he's vocally and emotionally up to the challenge of the role. We know so little about the man, really, that it's up to Griffith to shape our perception of him from what he gleans from the script and direction. But, he makes him an interesting character, who's often as brilliant as he is misguided, at times. Jillian Louis sparkles as Elizabeth, and really comes to life with the splendid "Try and Catch Me." Louis neatly acts the part of a pastor's daughter who yearns for a life outside her confines, and finds it in a man she initially treats strictly as a business partner. Randy Blair is a scene-stealer as Taylor, but then that's what his part is all about. Blair seizes the opportunity to go all out, and the show is made stronger by his efforts. Dan Sharkey plays a number of roles, including William Chapman, but he's also Elizabeth's concerned father, and most unexpectedly, terrific as Queen Victoria. Sharkey seems to be having a great time, and that energy is infectious. Emily Mikesell (Woman/Musician) and Jacob Yates (Man/Musician/Music Direction) add immeasurably to the experience, sometimes as characters, but always delivering excellent musicianship throughout, whether on fiddle, piano, cello, or mandolin.

West Hyler directs, and that's important to note, because Hyler also co-wrote the book with Matt Schatz, who wrote the music and lyrics (with additional music and lyrics by Jack Herrick). This means he has a vision for the project, and that comes out in all the details that he so lovingly gives us. This is a work that reflects the passion of John Banvard, and in particular, his love of the Mississippi River. The music blends Americana with more modern writing in clever and refreshing ways that are tuneful and memorable. Scott C. Neale outdoes himself by creating a "georama" for the show that acts to reflect the original, and also provides a backdrop for the various locations involved. It's a tight space, but the set is infused with rustic charm. Margaret Weedon's costumes are good character fits all around, and Ann G. Wrightson has designed a smart lighting scheme. Rusty Wandall's sound design is impeccable, with each bit of dialogue, lyric, and instrumentation clearly defined. Yates' music direction is also very well done.

GEORAMA is an informative, good-humored, and always engaging, slice of American History that deserves your attention and attendance. So get out and be one of the first to see this premier! The St. Louis Repertory Theatre has, once again, given us something truly special. See it through February 7, 2016 in the Studio Theatre of the Loretto-Hilton.

Photo Credit: Peter Wochniak

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