Georama: An American Panorama Told On Three Miles of Canvas
John Banvard (1850-1891) was a hardscrabble, itinerant artist who became the highest earning painter of his time with a novelty and performance about which few are aware. The authors of this intriguing show have embroidered on his life by conjecturing an influential relationship with here, unscrupulous, Phones Taylor, “P. T.” Barnum, who was certainly alive at the time and, in many ways a competitor. It works.
Before briefly signing on as scenic painter on a Mississippi Showboat, Banvard executed portraits and decorated public buildings, living hand to mouth. The river inspired him to depict his journey on one long canvas for which he made sketches while traveling both on the boat and later, on foot. In Louisville, the artist completed a 12’ high panorama (he called a Georama) depicting 3,000 miles from the mouth of the Yellowstone River to New Orleans.
Ends of the enormous piece were attached to two tall cylinders that could be hand-cranked allowing images to unwind over the course of about 2 hours. (The mechanism attracted Scientific American.) Banvard sold tickets, adding music and stories. He and his wife traveled, widely achieving international celebrity.
What I assume to be a copy of the original work evocatively scrolls across the stage throughout the show.
Nick Sullivan and Jillian Louis
We first encounter Banvard (P.J.Griffith) sketching at a southern dock. When showboat owner Bill Chapman (Nick Sullivan) throws P.T. Barnum (Randy Blair) off his boat not twenty feet away, the artist serendipitously meets the schemer. Barnum admires Banvard’s work and spontaneously sells him to his ex boss as a scenic painter. The new employee gratefully declares them a package deal. (Perhaps Barnum acts as pitchman.) Searching for a new way to bring in customers, the artist imagines his work… changing like it does in the world/slowly unfurled… The Georama is born. Barnum exits with no faith in the project.
Elizabeth Goodnow (Jillian Louis) is in an initially threadbare audience. She suggests incorporating (her) music and (his) stories. Despite her father, the Pastor’s warnings (Nick Sullivan) …if I did what you do…my cup would stay empty and so would my gut…Elizabeth takes to the river with Banvard. Our hero assumes she’s a sure thing. Wary of instability and allowing for dramatic push/pull, the young woman instead holds out awhile. (In a clever directorial conceit, when the painter wants to get rid of someone like the Pastor, he winds the Georama crank counterclockwise and the character backs out as if compelled.)
Jacob Yates and Ana Marcu
Notoriety at last hits provoking Chapman and Barnum to track down the couple with an offer to produce the show in London.. Chapman recommends they make up a European nom de plume, but Elizabeth insists on retaining American identity. I wonder whether this wasn’t added in accordance with current political climate. Now a success in New York, Barnum reappears to egg them on…There’s a prop-a op-a-tunity/And I know I’m the man for the job…
Banvard performs (he did) before Queen Victoria and while abroad encounters imitators. Some, it’s strongly implied, may be conscripted by Barnum. Before they get back to New York, determined to create something entirely new, Mr. and Mrs. Banvard travel to Egypt and The Holy Land where he paints new Georamas. By the time they return to the states, Tintypes are all the rage causing another setback.
The artist builds a castle-like residence (then called “Banvard’s Folly”) and museum, both of which compete with those of Barnum. Untenable compromise, a breakup, and failure follow. The ending, however, is happy.
Songs have an early American, frontier feel, both hoedown and ballad. Even with only two (skilled, multifaceted) musicians, it’s easy to imagine full scoring. Unfussy lyrics illuminate character and carry the story without falling into the trap of utilizing rhyme for rhyme’s sake. Melodies may not be memorable, but are engaging. Vocal arrangement is adept. Economic dialogue embraces sincerity with more than common musical theater nuance. A comic number in which a bearded Nick Sullivan plays Queen Victoria singing about sex is amusing- not the least because of the excellent actor- if a bit extraneous.
The piece is well cast. P.J. Griffith and Jillian Louis have both fine voices and acting chops. Griffith plays Banvard as always dreaming, often brooding, while Louis manifests a smart, practical, spunky Elizabeth. Side by side they make an appealing, fallible pair.
Randy Blair’s P.T. Barnum is more con man than visionary. I assume that’s a directorial choice. Under the circumstances, I’d’ve liked him a bit darker, but the actor has an infectiously good time with the role.
Nick Sullivan plays a roster of characters inhabiting each with flair. His Pastor affects a different tone than Chapman and Queen Victoria’s a hoot.
West Hyler’s Direction is as imaginative as it can be on a near empty stage. Timing is particularly skillful when dialogue overlaps. The leads are given space to think as if just coming to resolutions. Onstage music is skillfully integrated.
Projection Design (Jason Thompson) contributes immensely to the production’s success.
Costume Designer Whitney Locher does a bang-up job with what I imagine to be a very limited budget. ‘Love Chapman’s checks and plaids.
This is a worthy show. With some tweaks, it might…
Panorama Poster courtesy of Wickipedia
Photos by Jagged Edge Arts
Opening: Jillian Louis and P.J. Griffith
New York Musical Festival presents
Georama: An American Panorama Told On Three Miles of Canvas
Book by West Hyler and Matt Schatz
Music and Lyrics by Matt Schatz
Additional Music and Lyrics by Jack Herrick
Directed by West Hyler
Music Director Jacob Yates
Musicians: Jacob Yates-Piano, Cello; vocals
Ana Marcu- Piano, Violin, Guitar; vocals
The Peter Jay Sharpe Theater
416 West 42nd Street