Dallas — “I smell poetry…and love…and discovery!” a character from On the Eve exults. These words could just as easily have come from the lips of the rapt audience perched in their seats around Theatre Three’s Norma Young Arena Stage on opening night. The beloved tale of time travel, history, science, politics, art and a brave new world has taken an interesting little journey of its own. It went from strange brainchild amongst three super-talented theater and music artists (Michael Federico, Seth Magill and Shawn Magill), a stage reading in November 2011, a unanimous critical darling (as rare as lining up the celestial spheres) at the Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park’s Magnolia Lounge in late 2012, and now it’s having its “professional world premiere” as a part of Theatre Three’s 52nd season.
Most of the old gang came along for the ride and the visionary Jeffrey Schmidt remains at the helm. However, a new theater and a few new faces have changed the show—in some ways for the better, in others slightly worse.
As far as the play goes, describing all of its seemingly disparate and wonderful elements do not do it justice because it transcends them all. It is a metatheatrical amalgam of everything that should not go together—but does. There is a perfect balance of the then, now, and future now with Marie Antoinette (Martha Harms) and Louis XVI (a hilarious Ian Ferguson) sharing a stage not only with the hot air balloon-inventing Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Étienne (Montgomery Sutton and Drew Wall) but a living statue (a lovely and earnest Maryam Baig), a lost spaceman (Seth Magill), Irish step dancers (Shannon McCauley and Abbey Magill) and multilingual puppets, just to name a few.
Seeing the show for the first time in 2012 (and subsequently seeing it again a week later—a critic super-rarity) was an exhilarating experience. The real charm of On the Eve was, and still is to a very large degree, its immersive nature. One cannot help being swept up in the passion everyone involved feels for the material and the obvious fondness they have for each other. Nevertheless, moving to the larger and more complicated space at T3 presents some challenges. To his credit, Schmidt overcomes most of them; still, what the show gains in expansiveness and the ability to enter, exit and dance up and down the aisles dissipates some of the contained energy it had before. (Older, sleeping subscribers, some of whom left at intermission, did not help on opening night.) Sightlines are also a wee bit problematic because of the steep levels of the seating and surrounding structures. Not knowing where to look can open up a world of discovery, it can also be an invitation to let the eyes wander away from the action.
There are also different (improved?) costumes (Bruce R. Coleman) with shoulder pads and black lipstick for the Talking Man (Gregory Lush), a new jacket and helmet for Seth’s Chase Spacegrove, and lots more makeup for just about everyone else. The special effects are snazzier and the revolving wheel in the middle of the stage is stouter. Schmidt’s simple and effective set design is reminiscent of the earlier show—just more lighted globes, stacks of books, and CDs.
The cast represents probably the biggest change, generally to the detriment of the show. Brian Witkowicz played the part of Joseph in the 2012 edition. Sutton is a fine actor; however, Witkowicz’s lovable and erudite scruffiness served the part much better. Also the crucial chemistry with Joseph’s wife, Simone (Jenny Ledel) is tamped down in this new version. That being said, the always-funny Drew Wall as Étienne/Pundit is a nifty addition.
The music and the musicians (most of whom along with Seth Magill comprise Dallas band Home by Hovercraft) deserve special mention. Shawn Magill directs the music and plays the piano and synthesizer along with percussion and backing vocals. Gifted actor Max Hartman shows his musical chops on the drums, and the demon Johnny Sequenzia is on mandolin, harmonica and vocals. Steven Ramirez rocks the cello while Abbey Magill plays the xylophone when she isn’t dancing on the boards. The whole cast shows an impressive triple-threat awesomeness as they all sing, dance, and act with abandon.
The sound does not seem as balanced and enveloping as it was at Margo Jones, but the songs and musical numbers are just as toe-tappingly brilliant as they ever were. When Seth comes out for the rousing finale with tuba in tow and the other members of the cast transform the theater, the audience is clapping along with tears in their eyes; it is a thing of beauty that celebrates everything grand and joyful about life, theater, and the universe.
Picking out individual performances in such a production seems to go against the team effort spirit; however, it would be a crime not to acknowledge just a few. Seth Magill has upped his already-considerable game as Spacegrove: “hero, lover, hair-enthusiast.” Harms as Antoinette still projects sparkling superficiality with style, yet it’s her manic work as the more modern Marie that resonates beyond the show. Lush’s magnetic Talking Man has increased the Cabaret quotient (not a bad thing), and Ledel dazzles in her portrayal of Caroline and Simone (her “Talk” number is fantastic).
Yes, things have changed to the point that the show is marginally inferior to the glorious 2012 edition, but it is still head and shoulders above most of what theatergoers will see this year. As the authors proclaim, “History is revision + words are power + time travel is cool.” And that’s pretty damn cool no matter where you are.