Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Since its seventh season, Great River Shakespeare Festival has included one non-Shakespeare production in each year's offerings. This year's show is Georama, a new musical that deals with a slice of Mississippi River history, as befits GRSF's home in Winona, Minnesota, a river town dating back to the 1850s. As You Like It and Julius Caesar complete the slate for this season.
Georama is based on the true life story of John Banvard, who, in the 19th century, became our nation's first millionaire artist, and who today is barely a footnote in art history. As a young man, Banvard floated up and down the length of the Mississippi, sketching each section of the Father of Waters. His claim to fame was the creation of a huge panoramic painting depicting the full length of the Mississippi, from New Orleans to Minnesota. The painting was wound on scrolls that stood on either side of a stage, and Banvard narrated the majesty of the river as the unrolling scroll passed before an audience. To this entire arrangement he gave the name georama. His original georama was 12 feet tall and 1,300 feet long, which he expanded over time to a half mile in lengthquite a feat, though not the three miles in length he advertised.
Banvard and his georama toured the great East Coast cities, making him a wealthy man. In 1846 he took it to Europe. It was viewed by 600,000 people in London alone, including a private showing for Queen Victoria. He traveled on to Egypt and Palestine, set on creating similar depictions of those fabled lands while collecting ancient artifacts. His plan was to open the first museum of antiquities in the United States, exhibiting genuine artifacts with a georama as its centerpiece. Alas, he was beaten to the punch by the greatest showman of all, P.T. Barnum. His fortune waned as he fell victim not only to competing artists, imitators and showmen, but to new media: photography and the earliest kinescopes. The epic painting in his georama was cut into sections; none of the work survives today.
The musical Georama was created by bookwriters Wes Hyler and Matt Schatz, with music and lyrics by Schatz and additional music and lyrics by Jack Herrick, who in addition to many theater credits is director of the Red Clay Ramblers string band. Georama had its world premiere last winter at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. A modest musical, running about 95 minutes with a cast of four actors and three on-stage musicians, it is perfectly enjoyable. Most of its abundant songs19 titles, along with five reprisesare delightful. It reveals a fascinating, unknown story of American enterprise, as it rises and falls, and it is performed with brio under Paul Mason Barnes' sharp direction, moving seamlessly through the currents of John Banvard's life.
Where Georama falls short is its book. Hyler and Schatz have taken liberties with the narrative. That is fine, as little is known about John Banvard's life and every story needs to have a dramatic current. However, even when taking liberties, consistency and plausibility must be honored. Early on, a showboat performer called Taylor figures heavily in drawing John to work as a scene painter, leading to the creation of an early form of the georama. Later on, after Banvard's success, Taylor shows up again as a competitor in a twist that defies plausibility.
The book also draws heavily on John's relationship with Elizabeth Goodnow, who became both his musical accompanist and wife. Early in their life together she goads John to accept opportunities to travel abroad and expand the georama show. She is eager to reap the rewards dangled before them, while John resists, afraid his art will be compromised. At their end, with John desperate to stay afloat and ready to subvert his art to preserve prosperity, Elizabeth berates him for having lost the purity and convictions of the young man with whom she fell in love. Is this the same Elizabeth who pushed him to seek wealth and fame? If she has changed, it is a change we have not observed, and it rings false here.
As John Banvard, Robert Adelman Hancock is terrific, strong in voice and bursting with the vitality and charisma to make us believe in his journey from floating alone on the great river, transforming its beautiful bluffs and bayous into marks on paper, and creating from that an unprecedented work that succeeds both as art and showmanship. As Elizabeth, Stephanie Lambourn is persuasive early on, seeking adventure, hell bent against domesticity, and fanning the flames of John's ambitions. She is less effective later, not fully convincing us of her turn to a preference for hearth and home.
Michael Fitzpatrick is winning as Taylor, young John's manipulative mentor and, later, his arch rival. He is masterful at keeping the audience engaged, even as we despise what he is about. Mark Murphey effectively plays several roles, but scores highest in a delightful, albeit totally extraneous, turn as Queen Victoria. Murphey is quite amusing revealing that, contrary to public belief, her Majesty does not oppose art that contains a bit of sex in the sprightly staged musical number "Just a Little."
Other highlights among the songs are the lovely "Across the Mississippi," the jaunty "Try and Catch Me," "Something I'd Like to See," "Something So Great," and John's heated confrontation with his own values, "Art Is a Lie." Henry Wadsworth's epic poem "Evangeline" is, within the show, said to be inspired by the georama, and is beautifully set to music. As performed by the onstage band, the songs are played with a country lilt that finds the right emotional chord for each piece.
Margaret E. Weedon's costume designs appropriately match the rise and fall of fortunes. The simple set by R. Eric Stone provides smooth transitions from scene to scene, and Ebony Madry's lighting design finds the various tones of the river as well as the public arena. Scott C. Neale designed the georama projections, providing an enticing taste for this lost art form.
Georama is a gentle work that conveys great affection for its subject and offers a cautionary look at the fragility of fame and fortune. It is tuneful and good hearted. It could benefit by a slightly expanded production, allowing for greater gusto in some of the numbers. Moreover, the show could benefit by book revisions to give it the feel of telling a real story (even with liberties taken) of an extraordinary American life. There is much here worth building on. Having lost the art of John Banvard's georama, we can hope this new Georama finds its feet and flourishes.
Season XIII of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through July 31, 2016, at the Performing Arts Center, Winona State University, 450 Johnson St., Winona, MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $50.00. Discount Season Pass for all three Festival shows are available. For performance and other event schedules and tickets call 507-474-7900 or go to GRSF.org.
Book: Wes Hyler and Matt Schatz; Music and Lyrics: Matt Schatz; Additional Music, Lyrics, Arrangements and Musical Director: Jack Herrick; Director: Paul Mason Barnes; Dialect Coach: Erica Tobolski; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Ebony Madry; Lighting Design Supervisor: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Design: Margaret E. Weedon; Sound Design: Matthew Tibbs; Props Supervisor: Connor M. McEvoy; Assistant Costume Design: Caitlyn McCarthy; Production Stage Manager: Daniel Munson; Stage Manager: Kate Ocker; Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Baugh; Georama Design: Scott C. Neale, originally designed for the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis;
Cast: Michael Fitzpatrick (Taylor), Robert Adelman Hancock (John Banvard), Ted Kitterman (Fiddler) Stephanie Lambourn (Elizabeth), Mark Murphey (Chapman/Pastor/Queen Victoria), Ana Marcu (Pianist), Silas Sellnow (Guitarist).