Theater review: ‘On the Eve’ marks the dawn of a new era

On the Eve

• Through Feb. 16

• Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St., Suite 168, Dallas

• $35-$40

• 214-871-3300;

Posted 4:32pm on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014

Those who don’t learn from history, the saying goes, are doomed to repeat it. In the musical On the Eve, that message goes further. It’s not enough to merely learn from history; it’s also important to create — to make music and art, sculpt and intelligently put words together, not to mention be inspired by those who have done the same — to have a more meaningful journey through history. Indeed, to propel it.

In creating On the Eve, the husband-and-wife team of Seth and Shawn Magill of the local band Home by Hovercraft, along with local actor and writer Michael Federico, have heeded their own advice. The show, which had an acclaimed workshop incarnation in 2012 in Dallas and is now enjoying its professional world premiere at Theatre Three, again directed by Jeffrey Schmidt, will go down as an important work of art created in our own cosmic back yard.

A neat description is tough. The first act is set on the eve of the French Revolution, as brothers Joseph (Montgomery Sutton) and Etienne (Drew Wall) are inventing the hot-air balloon, which will carry certain characters, including a tired-of-bleeding Statue (Maryam Baig), into the future, a post-apocalyptic world also known as the second act. Actors playing major characters in the first act, including Marie Antoinette (a terrific Martha Harms), her King Louis (a bumbling Ian Ferguson) and Joseph’s ignored wife, Simone (Jenny Ledel), become contemporary doppelgangers, reinforcing the ideas of rebirth and rediscovery — or second chances. History, learned from.

There are always those who will try and stop these crazy creators, including a narrator called Talking Man (a flamboyant and in-control Gregory Lush), a nagging mother (Kristin McCollum) and a mad scientist (Anastasia Munoz) — all critics in their own way. Luckily, there’s a time-traveling hero, Chase Spacegrove, (Seth Magill), whose special powers include the gift of great hair.

You’d be forgiven for some confusion — it’s a lot to process, plus there’s all that stuff on the stage, above it and on the walls behind the audience in T3’s in-the-round space. As visually designed by Schmidt (scenic) and Bruce R. Coleman (costumes), it’s an oddly harmonious clutter, though. The transition to a larger space and configuration doesn’t always work; the dancers are lost when they’re behind the band, and the glorious, cathartic visual surprise at the end isn’t quite as exciting in this space (maybe it’s because, for me, it’s the second time seeing it).

You could probably spend hours arguing whether On the Eve is a musical or a play with songs, but either way, they’re really awesome songs. Most of them come from Home by Hovercraft’s 2013 album, Are We Chameleons?, with another, Stop the Noise, from an earlier EP, Seams. A new song, the high-energy Veneers, has been added, but it feels out of place lyrically.

Musical director Shawn Magill, sporting wings, leads from her keyboards in one corner, with the band, comprising drums, mandolin, cello, xylophone — everything but guitar — and even a tuba, making a late appearance in the show. Another interesting musical element is a signature of HXH’s sound: Irish clogging (Shannon McCauley and Abbey Magill) used as percussion, accenting Max Hartman on drums.

Did I mention the songs are awesome? They don’t always propel the action, as with more traditional musicals, but they do express themes, such as the hauntingly lovely Modernized and Stop the Noise. And while many of these voices aren’t traditional musical theater vocals, they work beautifully to capture a charismatic, rock experience.

The actors step out of the action and grab a hand-held microphone to sing, as if to say, “This is my moment!” with backing vocals performed at mike stands at the stage’s corners. Seth Magill, who fronts HXH, has a sound, look and swagger that’s reminiscent of Roxy Music-era Bryan Ferry.

In recent years, it’s been said by many that North Texas is in the midst of a theatrical golden age, producing its best work ever. On the Eve leads that revolution, charging with the weapon of original thought to fight against stasis and, worse, mediocrity. The lyrics of the song In Hand profess “I hear the machines and here’s what they say/conform conform obey obey.”

No chance of that.

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