Jillian Louis as Elizabeth and P.J. Griffith as John in “Georama” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Peter Wochniak.
Come for the “Georama,” stay for the fine acting, singing and great story that, according to the opening number, is about someone who should be known but isn’t. In the mid-ninteenth century, vaudeville and showboats were the entertainment of the day. A young sketch artist named John Banvard was “discovered” by a man named Taylor (who would later become quite a showman himself) and Banvard was soon designing backdrops for shows on the showboat.
Randy Blair as the soon to be famous P.T. Barnum in the Rep Studio production of “Georama.” Photo: Peter Wochniak
When the showboat owner wanted more, John Banvard came up with the idea for a moving panorama behind the actors that would transfer the action in the blink of an eye. This sparked the idea that made him his fortune, a giant moving panorama- now called a georama- that depicted the life all along the Mississippi River. It became a sensation and soon grew to a 3,000 foot extravaganza that traveled around the world complete with music and narration. When his ideas were soon stolen my other artists and entrepreneurs including the aforementioned Taylor who later became P.T. Barnum. his lavish life soon bankrupted him and eventually wiped his accomplishments from the history books. To add to his and the other johnny-come-latelys misfortunes, the art of photography soon came into prominence which almost made these panoramic scenes superfluous.
P.J. Griffith as Banvard, Dan Sharkey as Chapman and Jillian Louis as Elizabeth in “Georama” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak
Now, thanks to the book of “Georama” by West Huler and Matt Schatz and music and lyrics by Schatz and Jack Herrick, we are finally introduced to Banvard and his incredible invention. Even they had trouble putting the story together since there is little in print about Banvard’s life and times. P.J. Griffith plays the dreamer, John Banvard, with a relish and optimism that is like no other. He cuts a dashing figure and his enthusiasm is infectious. He soon meets a preacher’s daughter who comes up with idea to enliven his panorama and comes up with the name “georama-” which is appropriate since it spans the entire length of the Mississippi. Jillian Louis is a lovely singer/actress who helps in the success and business decisions of John. She also joins in the music with a turn at the piano.
Elizabeth (Jillian Louis) and John (P.J. Griffith) land in London with their show in “Georama” at the Rep Studio Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochnicak
Playing Taylor is Randy Blair who turns his character into the scheming and double-dealing P.T. Barnum. Always claiming to have the interests of John at heart, he soon leads to the downfall of his friend. Dan Sharkey plays the showboat captain and several other characters including the preacher and a star turn as Queen Victoria in a delightfully naughty number. Rounding out the cast are Emily Mikesell and Jacob Yates as musicians and joining in the acting chores from time to time.
With a real flavor for the period, this one-act, 90 minute musical is a real treat. Rousing music featuring piano and fiddle, a few ballads and even humorous numbers make for a varied and likable score. The script is also filled with clever lines and keeps the story moving quickly with dialogue and a bountiful number of songs. And, above all, the cast is a real charmer- you really like them all including the scoundrels.
Dan Sharkey in his wonderful appearance as Queen Victoria with musicians Jacob Yates and Emily Mikesell in the background at the Rep’s “Georama” in the Studio. Photo: Peter Wochniack
Book writer West Hyler also directs this production with an eye for getting the story told without any wasted movement. The story zips along and we enjoy every minute of it. The real hero of our story, though, is scenic designer Scott C. Neale. His dynamic goerama, about 600 feet long, is a masterpiece in itself. We see some of Banvard’s work recreated but we also travel through locales along the journey with John and Elizabeth- the little church where they meet, their trips through the U.S. including Louisville, their opening in London, their trip to Egypt and their unsuccessful times in New York. It’s an incredible achievement and is a remarkable feat of engineering by the stage crew.
Margaret E. Weedon’s costumes are impeccable and just right for the period while Ann G. Wrightson provides the wonderful lighting design and Rusty Wandall’s sound design completes the flawless technical portion of “Georama.”
P.J. Griffith as John with part of the magnificent Scott C. Neale georama in the background during the Rep Studio Theatre production of “Georama.” Photo: Peter Wochniak
This is simply an incredible piece for the Repertory Theatre Studio Theatre. How they accomplished this magnificent history lesson, filled with music and the spectacular georama is beyond belief- in a 90 minute show. Catch “Georama” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis now through February 7th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.