A tale of an artist who creates a looong painting - so long it's displayed by utilizing a pair of rollers - doesn't sound like much of a basis for a musical. The painting is called a georama, and "Georama" is the name of the play making its world premiere at the Rep Studio. The artist himself, John Banvard, and all his work have long since disappeared from American memory, although he surely did exist.
Given the concept, one arrives not sure to expect. Sure enough, there's a large painted backdrop onstage. But the play is considerably more than that. Though set in the mid-eighteenth century, it's very contemporary in its approach, especially its language. Bamvard (P.J. Griffith) is obviously brilliant and talented as a young man but far more interested in his art than in earning a living. He meets a fellow named Taylor (Randy Blair), a man whose brain seems to be a veritable factory of mostly-bright ideas, and they persuade a showboat owner to hire - or in Taylor's case, re-hire - them to put on shows. Bamvard comes up with the idea for a long, long painting of the Mississippi River, where the boat operates, that could be rolled past an audience and Taylor stages the shows. But Bamvard is more interested in his art than in making money, they part ways and he marries Elizabeth (Jillian Louis), who composes music to go with his paintings.
The backdrop we see does turn out to do exactly what the Georama did. It's not a gimmick, it becomes almost another character in the play. But it's not the focus. The story is more interesting than many musicals, the music itself is relevant, tuneful and frequently fun, and it's very well acted and sung. Griffith, as Banvard, almost glows with the fire and drive of his art. Louis easily progresses from wide-eyed near-innocent to business partner and stressed wife and has a fine voice. Blair's Taylor is a wonder, barely controlling his mental hyperactivity, always coming up with something new and seldom hare-brained. Dan Sharkey plays several of the other roles. He's a particularly gifted chameleon.
Music is provided by Emily Mikesell and music director Jacob Yates; each plays several instruments and double as occasional actors as well. Their versatilty is well used.
That rolling painting began with scenic director Scott C. Neale and was painted over several weeks by artists at The Paint Space in St. Louis. The intimate space of the Rep Studio is perfect for this show, full of details and well put together by director West Hyler. Hyler co-authored the script with Matt Schatz, and it had an early reading at the Rep's Ignite! New Play Festival in 2014.
It's exciting to see a new play as well crafted and staged as "Georama" is. We won't have heard the last of it, I'm sure. Grab your chance to say you knew it when it was young.
through February 7
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis