It's strange to site Spring when reviewing a show in the Fall, but watching a premiere of a new work is like waiting for flowers to break the dull gray earth. Nature's following effulgence will render them commonplace in a flowering field, but the first sprouting buds are made brighter by virtue of their dull backdrop.
That's a fancy way of saying new works are often like flowers in mud.
Fortunately for On the Eve, the new musical from Spacegrove Productions and Nouveau 47 Theatre, it's more flower than mud. Though, the same juxtaposition works toward book writer Michael Federico's point. This "almost entirely true story of Marie Antoinette and the first time traveling hot air balloon" prompts the audience to recognize the mud they're in and sprout.
There's a lot more plot in the pot than the famed cake-eating tart, and director Jeffrey Schmidt does his best to wrestle it into poignant moments. What he doesn't have to worry about are the songs by husband-and-wife team Seth and Shawn Magill.
That's when the show breaks wide open and turns into a de facto performance of their band Home By Hovercraft—only with very special guests sitting in. Their wall of sound will envelope you with lush color and swirling fragrance with a beat that will enlist you in its bouncing anthem stomp. You could use Polyphonic Spree as a reference point, but just when you've taken their measure the rhythm is reinforced by synchronized Irish step dancers.
The only quibble may be the lack of an encore. So, if you want more, you'll just have to return.
The show begins at humanity's end. Amidst encroaching explosions a group of post-apocalyptic players agree to perform their story one last time. Gregory Lush's narrator, The Talking Man, comes half from Cabaret and half from Clockwork Orange. In fact, the entire evening is a smorgasbord of psychological issues culled from the syllabi of Theatre Lit and Film Studies. It's Brecht and Albee. It's Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. It swirls with the lawless logic of dreams and would make a Freudian analyst a pretty penny in therapist fees.
There's an inventor, Joseph, and his wife, Simone, whose love grows cold while he researches hot air. Played by Brian Witkowicz and Jenny Ledel, their withering love story provides ballast for sillier faire such as Martha Harms as Marie Antoinette and Ian Ferguson as Louis XVI and their anachronistic relationship spoiler: Chase Spacegrove, played by Seth Magill. Yep, he's a time travelling balloonist. While we're at it why not add a bleeding statue, played by Maryam Baig, who rebelliously decides to speak. And that's just in the first act.
There's enough material for three shows and it's hard to know whom the show is about amongst the flood. Through the tumult the audience is denied an obvious character in which to invest. The good news is that a rising tide raises all boats, or in this case balloons. Themes of individuality versus duty are examined everywhere from family to country to art.
There are brilliant moments in the maelstrom. Some are quiet, such as the Tara Magill playing Antoinette's younger self in the mirror. Some are sick, such as Gregory Lush revealing the Talking Man's sadist side. But the best are sung. The voices are an embarrassment of riches. Seth Magill sounds like Bryan Ferry. Martha Harms sounds like a young Alison Moyet. Jenny Ledel sounds like Fiona Apple. As music director, Shawn Magill blends it all together from the keyboard by the stage.
This show seems born out of a desire for revolution but with the real awareness of the consequences. Characters/players are given chances to see and change their circumstances, but then must face the music, literally.
Go and you'll be inspired to face the music with them.
[Here's the song "Stop the Noise" from Home by Hovercraft's 2009 EP Seams, which is available on iTunes. That song makes it into On the Eve; the others will be featured in a forthcoming recording.]
◊ Go here to read our story about the project