Entertainment

Theater review: ‘Georama’ is rolling on the river

With the mighty Mississippi River as inspiration, the creative juices flow in “Georama,” a spirited, tuneful new musical that fittingly made its debut here.

In engaging song, story and scenic design, an artist’s rise and fall is well-staged in The Rep’s Studio Theatre. It’s a wonderful experience, and a significant one, that bi-state residents won’t want to miss whether you are a history buff or show-tune fan.

Immersed in the past but relatable in present day, “Georama” tells us about John Banvard, a struggling sketch artist whose innovative panoramic design entertained Americans. His talent made him rich and famous, but times changed, and he has been forgotten.

Pulled out of the obscurity heap by director and co-playwright West Hyler, Banvard lives and breathes in this rich period piece. Hyler shows how Banyard was able to travel the world as he showed others what he had seen along his journeys.

Hyler’s enthusiasm for this distinctively American tale is evident, and his attention to detail gives this intimate portrait depth. Along with clever lyricist and composer Matt Schatz, he has aimed for the heart.

A spry cast of four, accompanied by two musicians, makes us believe in the possibilities of a 19th century canvas — designed with wide open spaces and big dreams in mind.

Because of the creative team’s vision, we are captivated by Scott C. Neale’s stunning 600-foot hand-painted scroll that is hand-cranked by the crew. It reveals, 45 paintings, which include local landmarks.

As good as the artwork is, however, it thankfully does not upstage a tight ensemble fluidly directed by Hyler.

PJ Griffith is a passionate Banvard, undone by rivals, his own integrity, and the too-sweet taste of success. His character’s conviction and drive are reflected in melodic vocals.

Sweet-voiced Jillian Louis lends level-headed support as his collaborator and eventual wife Elizabeth.

In a showy role as charismatic fast-talker Taylor, Randy Blair is impressive. In a cruel twist of fate, his showman reached the pinnacle of the American dream while Banvard languished.

Dan Sharkey is strong in all three brief roles — showboat mogul William Chapman,

Elizabeth’s minister father and particularly humorous as a cheeky Queen Victoria, lending comic relief with a solo number.

​Music director Jacob Yates and musician Emily Mikesell flavor the piece with vivid Americana-folk sounds, with splendid arrangements by old-time music maestro Jack Herrick. Herrick, of the Red Clay Ramblers, added music and lyrics, too.

“Georama” reflects a bygone era with a strong sense of place and time, creating a work that honors our rich river culture and the never-ending quest to make something that matters during our lifetime.​

“Georama”

  • When: through Feb. 7
  • Where: The Repertory Studio Theatre, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, Mo.
  • Tickets: 314-968-4925; www.repstl.org
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