The first georama painted in more than 100 years is 700 feet long, the size of two football fields, and is the centerpiece of a bold new musical that premiered Friday at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
“Georama” tells the story of 19th century artist John Banvard, who celebrated the majesty of the mighty Mississippi River and its scenic valleys by painting a panoramic scrolling georama.
The region’s rich culture and significant history is detailed in a hand-painted scroll that will be the rolling scenic backdrop for the show.
Scenic designer Scott C. Neale (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) and a team of painters have worked countless hours on it, from concept on onion skin trace paper to digital design to execution, with help from artists at The Paint Space in south St. Louis.
Members of the backstage crew will hand-crank the panoramic painting to make it move, transporting the audience from the St. Louis riverfront to Boston, New York City, London, Egypt and other points. Be ready for shock and awe in the basement black box Studio Theater through Feb. 7.
“Georamas were the precursor to the silent movie. Art exaggerated the truth. They would be narrated. There are so few that remain,” Neale said.
This world premiere is directed by the musical’s creative sparkplug West Hyler, who grew up in Lexington, Ky., the son of a builder whose family includes seven generations of farmers. He learned to appreciate both art and nature.
“Banvard spent some time on the Mississippi meditating in the quiet of nature. I think it’s incredibly important to take time for nature when we’re in the hustle and bustle of an urban environment,” he said.
“Banvard’s story is deeply moving and affecting, and emotionally satisfying. I think it has something for everyone — the audience will identify with the characters and see themselves in it,” Hyler said.
Neale knocked out storyboards for the whole show quickly with Hyler. “It was rendering the details that was time-consuming. It was not difficult to generate material,” he said.
The colonnade of the Goldenrod Showboat is a local element in the show. “We had to get that exactly right,” Neale said.
When Hyler saw the completed georama for the first time, he was in awe.
“It was an overwhelming experience. This is the most astonishing set piece,” Hyler said. “It’s eight feet high and has 45 different paintings.”
Originally, The Rep had discussed possibly using projections, but artistic director Steve Woolf said they had to build it, and hand-painting would be best.
“It had to be,” Neale said. “It’s about a painter, and we had to pay homage to his project.”
Neale, who designs sets for the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Forest Park every summer as well as shows at The Rep, is a native St. Louisan. A Vianney High School graduate, he earned his bachelor’s degree in set design at Webster University and a master’s degree at Northwestern University. He begins a full-time teaching job at Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas, in August, but will continue to work on St. Louis theatrical designs.
“I am very interested in St. Louis history. The story is fascinating. We looked up old photographs of the city and the region’s roots, and started from there. The rich river culture still exists — we use the Piasa bird and Cahokia Mounds in the georama. Native Americans had a huge presence here and they are represented,” Neale said.
Hyler was drawn to Banvard’s epic rise and fall when he read a magazine article in 2007.
Once a starving sketch artist, Banvard’s georama catapulted him to the life of luxury and fame that he craved. It also brought envy, competition, deception and a heap of trouble that threatened to dampen his passion.
“I underlined passages. I thought, ‘This could work as entertainment,’ and started working on it — but not full-time,” he said.
Hyler was associate director of the first national tour of “Jersey Boys,” and went on to set up seven companies on five continents. He has directed at Shakespeare festivals and regional theaters throughout the United States.
Hyler related to Banvard’s story because it shows the choices he must face between the art he is devoted to and the life he has always yearned for, he said.
Banvard’s relationship with his wife has become the heart of the show, he said. “His wife was a working artist and collaborator as well, and I saw parallels in my own life, as my wife is an artist.”
Another fruitful collaboration was meeting playwright, composer and lyricist Matt Schatz six years ago.
“I asked him to take a crack at it,” he said.
Schatz, winner of the prestigious 2012 Kleban Prize in musical theatre for most promising librettist for “Love Trapezoid,” wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book with Hyler.
Jack Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers, who worked with Roger Miller on “Big River,” provided additional music and lyrics.
“He helped with arrangements and orchestrations, and expanded the music to include a bluegrass-folk-American sensibility. The three of us made a great team,” Hyler said.
The play’s first reading was at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Minnesota, and several readings in New York City followed, but their vision was nurtured two years ago when The Rep included it in the Ignite! New Play Festival.
“Seth (Gordon, associate artistic director) and Steve (Woolf, artistic director) were both fantastic to work with,” he said. And The Rep decided to stage it in the Studio Theatre.
Four characters will bring the story to life – John’s friend Taylor and William Chapman, who created the showboat, in addition to the Banvards.
When he saw a run-through, Neale thought the show had a good injection of humor, too. “There is a lot of comic relief.”
But honoring the artist was a priority.
“Banvard started it all. It was the biggest and the longest. Others were inspired by him, but his was the first,” Hyler said. “His art will be rediscovered, and it merits recognition. It is a glorious representation of the Mississippi River.”
When: Jan. 22 through Feb. 7
Where: The Repertory Studio Theatre, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves
Tickets: 314-968-4925; www.repstl.org