Homegrown musicals are rare in Dallas. And On the Eve is the little musical that could. It began in 2012 in a tiny workshop production in Fair Park, now it’s been re-staged at Theatre Three with hopes of future productions elsewhere. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says On the Eve is bigger – but not necessarily better.
- Art & Seek feature
- Dallas Morning News review by Nancy Churnin
- Front Row review by Lindsey Wilson
- Arts&CultureTexas review by Lauren Smart
- Dallas Observer review
- Critical Rant & Rave review
- TheaterJones review
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The music in On the Eve is the heart and soul of the show’s appeal. It’s by the Dallas band Home by Hovercraft, and their indie pop tunes are smart, catchy foot-stompers. Seth and Shawn Magill, the husband-and-wife team behind Home by Hovercraft, throw in waltz rhythms, cellos, tuba and Irish step dancers. The entire musical has much the same feel. It’s full of youthful passion and a quirky resourcefulness. Even the storyline has a merry, cobbled-together quality.
Homegrown Dallas musicals have rarely been this lively. But they’ve been rare, period. So I’m sorry I have to disagree with the adoration that’s greeted On the Eve. What, for instance, is this show saying? Written by Michael Federico, On the Eve follows an acting troupe in the future re-telling the story of Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, the Frenchie who invented the hot-air balloon in 1783 with his brother Jacques-Etienne. Here, Montgolfier invents a time machine as well, and just as the French Revolution erupts, he takes off, along with a swashbuckling space hero (Seth Magill) and a talking statue (Maryam Baig).
The relationships we’ve seen so far – Montgolfier and his long-suffering wife (Jenny Ledell), the space hero and Marie Antoinette, a repressive regime and its guillotine – now repeat in different eras. So On the Eve says the same thing in half-a-dozen ways. And what it says is: Obedience and oppression are bad. True love and freedom are good. And anyone can be a rebel hero. This is the chorus from the song, ‘In Hand’: “I hear the machines, here’s what they say, Conform, conform, obey, obey. I hear the machines, here’s what they say, conform, conform, obey, obey.”
When it talks or sings like this, On the Eve can make Les Miz seem profound. In fact, both shows have much the same stirring spirit of youthful rebellion. But rebellion against who or what? The ‘machines’? Our heroes themselves invent and deploy a time machine. As for villains, the only consistent one is the theater troupe’s bullying manager (Gregory Lush). And what he seems to hate most is actors not sticking to the script. In this, he’d be joined by such tyrants as William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Horton Foote …
Obviously, it’s a metaphor about life, about changing our own life scripts — a pretty well-worn metaphor. Metaphors can always be re-invigorated, of course, but consider the post-apocalyptic world, the ‘frame setting’ in On the Eve. It’s introduced with a big bang — the actors, it seems, are being shelled — but then it’s not really mentioned again until the very end. Actually, it’s barely mentioned and never explained because it never really matters much. It’s mostly just a reference, a tone-setting gesture. It’s a gesture toward our popular dystopian, rise-of-the-robots sensibility. In short, the end-times timeframe provides dramatic atmosphere, little else. The same thing seems to hold with all the youthful rebellion or re-writing our life scripts; it’s a pose without much real content.
Or consider the use of history. At one point, King Louis (Ian Ferguson) gets a laugh when he consoles Marie Antoinette. We’ll survive, he says. We’re French, that’s what we do. Well, Marie may have been the French queen, but she was born the archduchess of Austria – being L’Autrichienne was one of the objections the French people had with her.
I know, that’s pedantic, the show is hardly relating the real history of the Montgolfiers; they didn’t exactly build a time machine. But it’s also symptomatic: There’s a carefree sloppiness with history and meaning here because, well, we’re young Americans, this is a musical entertanment, that’s what we do. We sing about freedom. So just get swept up in the cleverness and fun.
These weaknesses were in the original production. One had hoped the new staging would clarify or tighten things. But with all its time-traveling whimsy and its length of two hours and forty minutes, On the Eve feels very much like a low-rent Doctor Who episode that’s dragged on too long. When an actor introduces yet another story, a fairy tale about four witches and a king — and this is when we’ve reached two hours and thirty minutes, no less — audience members might be forgiven for feeling a little rebellious themselves.
Which is not to say On the Eve isn’t fun at times. Gregory Lush plays the manager with vivid, snarling energy. Along with his performance as John Wilkes Booth earlier this year in Theatre Three’s Assassins, he’s come into his own with such commanding, self-consciously theatrical roles. Both Martha Harms as Marie Antoinette and Maryam Baig as the talking statue also feel fresh and alive. And just as the story re-cycles historical figures and pop culture genres, director-designer Jeffrey Schmidt goes big for that ‘60s aesthetic of funky ingenuity. He pulls out do-it-yourself effects that lend the show its air of childlike magic: A little rope, a shopping cart, a lot of silky fabric, you’ve got yourself a time-traveling balloon.
Too bad the balloon never really lifts the rest of the show. Let’s face it. The real reason to see On the Eve is still the rousing pop music.