Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The bad news is, you may not get a chance to see it again, once this production closes.
The set is dominated by a lovely floor-to-ceiling scrolling mural depicting scenes of the wild Mississippi River, big river port cities, and other plot points from the play, directed and co-written by West Hyler. Painted scenery flows along behind the actors in a "georama."
And that may be your problem, right there: that giant scroll, which (spread out) is almost as long as the Gateway Arch is tall, and also happens to be ineluctably central to the story. It may be one of the more demanding set requirements in modern theater history, in sheer man-hours of work. So see it before it all wraps up, till who knows when.
The original georama of life along the Mississippi River (circa 1847) was three miles long, condensing a 2,300 mile trek from Minneapolis to New Orleans. The scrolling panorama used here was designed by Scott C. Neale, and painted by "The Paint Space" in South St. Louis. It unfurls rather majestically through a 90-minute show, creating effects that range from fun little sight-gags, to the deeply romantic sight of stars like Chinese lanterns, above a misty river.
Georamas were a big deal in the mid-19th century when curiosity about Westward Expansion was rampant in New England, and even across the Atlantic. The first one made a lot of money for artist John Banvard, and for the man who first conceived what, in a very loose sense, may also be considered the earliest form of "motion pictures." P.J. Griffith is plainspoken and romantic and a bit of a misguided hero as Banvard, and Randy Blair is the rascally Taylor, infectiously delightful, guiding the artist to his first taste of success.
In director Hyler and Matt Schatz's libretto, the two characters rise together in fame and fortune. But eventually one falls from grace, while the other just keeps on rising. The songs by Mr. Schatz are a lot of fun, with some additional music and lyrics by Jack Herrick. And the finished product is quite lovely, genuine, and touching: with only a primary cast of four, and two singing musicians.
Jillian Louis is hilariously deflating toward the fledgling artist, kind but honest, even in her huge dresses and ringlets and curls. She plays a reverend's daughter following along through Banvard's journey. And she handles the very familiar romantic structure with outstanding ease.
Dan Sharkey is a great, dour presence as (among other roles) a showboat impresario. Later (in a very funny but possibly vestigial turn) he returns as a surprising Queen Victoria. And when his voice drops to a quiet growl, you can almost hear the recently departed Alan Rickman.
Director Hyler keeps them all starkly down-to-earth-even in the grandiose moments supplied by Mr. Blair, and in the bitterly duplicitous world of antebellum show-business.
Through February 7, 2016, in the studio theater at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Rd. (at Big Bend Blvd.). For more information visit www.repstl.org.