By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Secrets of time travel are revealed in On the Eve, the high-flying new musical at the tiny Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park. According to the whimsical script, written by Dallas actor Michael Federico, all you need to float back and forth across centuries are a hot air balloon, a Hula Hoop, Marie Antoinette, the Montgolfier brothers, a pair of beautiful Irish step-dancers, a few puppets, a talking statue and some kickass rock music. Having actor Gregory Lush also helps. He serves as "the Talking Man," the musical's devilishly attractive ringmaster, emcee and disciplinarian, whacking his cane when historical events get scrambled by over-eager epoch jumpers.
It's about time a Dallas theater birthed a cracking good musical. This one, directed and designed by Jeffrey Schmidt, with a 12-song score by Dallas band Home by Hovercraft's Seth and Shawn Magill, is a small show that feels like the start of something big. Moving with the same throbbing beats and sexy energy of the musical Spring Awakening, it also is brimming over with the dark wit of the movies Back to the Future and Time Bandits.
Produced by the Magills' Spacegrove Productions and Nouveau 47, a small troupe focused on developing new work, On the Eve explores a vast array of overlapping ideas. Politics, religion and science are the boldfaced subject headings in the show, but Federico and the Magills sneak up on their lofty themes. A statue, played by the lovely Maryam Baig, becomes the muse for an off-course spaceman named Chase Spacegrove (Seth Magill). He becomes a consultant to the Montgolfiers, a couple of stymied 18th century French inventors on the cusp of creating the first manned flight in their hot air balloon. Those characters then provide the mode of escape for the doomed Marie Antoinette (Martha Harms), snatched away from the guillotine just before her pretty head is separated from her va-va-voom body.
Or something like that.
Plot elements don't happen in a logical or factual sequence in On the Eve. And that doesn't matter at all. The show is a carnival of surprises — the appearance of those Irish dancers (Abbey Magill and Shannon McCauley) is one of the most magical moments in a Dallas theater this year — and you'll follow wherever it leads.
Good theater should inspire joy. In this show's 135 minutes, joyful scenes and songs spill out like colorful candy. It's Alice in Wonderland meets A Wrinkle in Time with a nod to Evita and a wink at Warner Bros. cartoons.
Seth Magill will remind you of movie star Paul Rudd. He gives a sharp, tight performance as the time-hopping astronaut, waving his ray gun (designed by Caleb Massey) and rocking the microphone on his big numbers. Martha Harms morphs from the ditzy, cake-bearing Marie Antoinette into a socially conscious modern woman searching frantically through her journals for the perfect word that will save humankind. Jenny Ledel gives subtle emotional depth to the role of the neglected wife of Joseph Montgolfier, played by Brian Witkowicz (his brother Stephen plays the other Montgolfier, Etienne). As Louis XVI, Ian Ferguson is a wonderfully goofy-faced clown. In and out of numerous small roles are versatile actors Sara Duc, Aspen Taylor and Dante Flores.
Shawn Magill leads the onstage band, playing the heck out of keyboards and percussion. Max Hartman, an actor usually seen in leading roles at Kitchen Dog Theater, here plays drums. Johnny Sequenzia handles mandolin, harmonica and a hilarious one-line role as "Charles."
The Magnolia Lounge, the same space where pioneering producer Margo Jones invented the concept of regional theater in the 1940s, wraps On the Eve around and over the audience. Scenic design by Schmidt recycles children's drawings, bits of fabric and wood, old parts of other sets, a grocery cart and other objects in delightful, imaginative ways. The show's final gesture of stagecraft (no spoiler on that because it's just too good) leaves the audience on a dreamy high.
Book your journey to On the Eve before it closes. And hope that Nouveau 47's New Year's resolutions include a revival of this show as early in 2013 as possible.