August 7, 2017
Do you know who John Banvard is?
“He’s the most famous man you’ve never heard of,” belts the intimate cast in the opening number. And just like that, we’re flung into the fascinating, unfortunately neglected, tale of the arguably first-ever celebrity artist, Banvard.
The ninety-minute bio-musical is written by West Hyler and Matt Schatz, who are also credited with directing and the conceiving music and lyrics, respectively. Their involvement from page to stage pays off. “Georama: An America Panorama Told on 3 Miles of Canvas,” unfolds seamlessly from one scene and catchy tune to the next. Paired with the unfamiliar storyline, the performance incites intrigue as much as it educates.
It’s the 1840s. A young sketch artist is happened up by a showman named Taylor, who soon gets them hired as a package performance duo. Banvard explores the idea of scrolling through images one image after another. He uses his sketches of the Mississippi River to create an impressive, moving panorama, or as Taylor preferred to rebrand it—a “georama.” It’s a hit.
But as Taylor envisions dollar signs for their act overseas, Banvard (well-played by actor P.J. Griffith) declares, “I don’t want to make money, I want to make art.” He continues his taxing pursuit of innovation internationally, teaming up with a female composer and his soon-to-be-discovered love.
Most interesting is that this Taylor, who emerges as Banvard’s relentless competitor, is none other than well-known P.T. Barnum. Actor Randy Blair shines in this role, nailing the comedic timing throughout. “A loud enough lie can trump the truth,” he sings with pride, tipping his hat to the wonders of a good PR spin.
What we see on stage is really a sad, but true, case study of the genuine artist (or common man) with integrity, ultimately stifled by the capitalistic, money-hungry businessman.
The performance further taps into the stereotype of the struggling artist that was as true in Banvard’s experience back in nineteenth century, as it can be today. “Art is for people with money and time to burn,” they sing. “You start to suspect that you’re frivolous…You weren’t prepared for the starving part.”
This uniquely American, historical account—complete with true story drama, live music, and a touch of drag—is suitable for such diverse audiences. “Georama” deserves a bigger stage.
Workshopped during a Drama League residency and first presented at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, “Georama” is presented as part of the 2017 New York Musical Festival.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jenny Thompson