Book by West Hyler and Matt Schatz
Music and Lyrics by Matt Schatz
Arrangements, Additional Music and Lyrics by Jack Herrick
Directed by West Hyler
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
The Authors’ Note in the program for “Georama: An American Panorama on 3 Miles of Canvas,” currently running at the New York Musical Festival at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, claims that John Banvard the subject of their musical “[has] been entirely obliterated by history.” Although that premise is not entirely accurate – articles about Banvard exist in numerous scholarly articles – the musical itself has merit. The musical itself is not new, having been produced at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre in 2016 and workshopped during a residence at The Drama League. Its revival at NYMF indicates the creative team continues to consider the musical to be in development and this review will assume that to be the case.
John Banvard (played with a charming naivete by P.J. Griffith) is a young (and, of course, starving) artist whose mantra might be “Who Needs People” one of the musical numbers. A gifted loner who enjoys making sketches of the land and seascape of the Mississippi River, he thrives on being “Our Across the Mississippi.” After collaborating with showboat owner Chapman (played with entrepreneurial bravado by Nick Sullivan) and “impresario” Taylor (played with an appropriate deplorable grandiosity by Randy Blair), Banvard envisions the panorama, a moving display of scenes along the Mississippi. Envisioned as a ‘georama’ by Taylor, Banvard enlists the help of musician Elizabeth Goodnow (played with an endearing sincerity and vulnerability by Jillian Louis), daughter of Pastor Goodnow (Nick Sullivan) who suggests Banvard “Make Things People Need” and not “abduct” his daughter from his conservative praxis.
“Georama” strives to give substance to John Banvard, to “fill in the blanks” about this elusive artist; however, the scenes provide little of essence about his life. The audience learns more about his love interest and wife Elizabeth than about the inner and outer struggles of the artist. The story jumps quickly from Banvard’s initial employment by Chapman and his collaboration with Taylor to his success, to his betrayal by Taylor (P.T. Barnum), to his travels to London and Egypt, to his ultimate realization that “Art Is a Lie” and his return home to Elizabeth.
Under West Hyler’s direction, the talented cast grapples with their characters with care and considerable authenticity. P.J. Griffith’s and Jillian Louis’s duets are engaging: “Something so Great;” “Who Needs People/Try and Catch Me;” and the reprise of “Across the Mississippi” display their considerable vocal talents. Some of Matt Schatz’s music is derivative and his lyrics (with Jack Herrick) contain an abundance of repetitive rhyming. The musical numbers are, however, pleasing and heartfelt. Scott Neale’s scenic design, Ann Wrightson’s lighting design, and Whitney Locher’s costume design are satisfying and Jason Thompson’s projection design is remarkable.
Three of the musical numbers could easily be eliminated and replaced by solid numbers that reveal more about the “forgotten” artist and serve to move the plot forward. “Something I’d Like to See,” sung by the musicians contributes nothing to the story line. “Perhaps,” sung by Polly (one of the musicians portraying a sex worker who attempts to lure John into a tryst) is puzzling and – even more puzzling – is “Just A Little,” the musical number sung by Nick Sullivan in drag as a Queen Victoria claiming to need sex. How this develops the mystery of Banvard’s obscurity is itself a mystery. The number is at best tasteless.
As a work in progress, “Georama” needs some attention by its creators; however, at its core, it is a fascinating story of the life of an artist whose vision and drive reflected a life that was “Something So Great.” The musical raises rich and enduring questions about creativity, truth and falsehood, and the quest for meaning and acceptance.