If the future of theater, in Dallas or anywhere else, has more shows coming up with the thrilling ideas, energy, talent and art of On the Eve, then we have a lot to look forward to. This time-hopping rock musical (with Irish step-dancing! puppet sheep! giant disco ball!) was born in a staged reading in 2011. The show enjoyed a two-weekend run in late 2012 at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. Word of mouth made it a sellout hit back then, and we who were knocked out by it have been waiting to see how it would fare in a bigger remount in Theatre Three's 52nd season.
Not only has it evolved into a better, tighter show — whew! — it's grown into something beyond any easy definition of traditional American musical theater. And bully for that.
Created by Dallas actor-playwright Michael Federico and Seth Magill and Shawn Magill of the Dallas band Home By Hovercraft, On the Eve is a happy, flippy, trippy, immersive experience. Walk through the doors at T3 and you're inside the peculiar scrapbook/comic book world of On the Eve, surrounded by thousands of images: torn-up photographs, postcards, letters, drawings, snips of magazines, scrawls of graffiti. Every inch of the in-the-square space is wrapped in something that at some point will be referenced. (Director Jeffrey Schmidt, a strong practitioner of sustainable design, also created the scenery, which spills out into the hallways and extends up into and across the ceiling.)
It's musical theater as a visual art installation in which historical figures meet sci-fi superheroes, robots and cute children (notably Tara Magill, who sings angelically). Everybody dances up and down the steep steps of T3's Norma Young Arena space and onto a revolving cake-stand centerstage, a perfect vehicle for keeping actors visible to all four sections of audience.
Under a sun ball made of sparkly CDs, the show unfolds. It's nearly futile to try to describe a "plot." On the Eve doesn't play by those rules. But in brief, the first act happens in the past. We see Marie Antoinette (coquettish Martha Harms) in a pink wig that turns her into a yummy iced cupcake. "Let's have sex over a pile of cake and money!" she squeals. Louis XVI (played as a likable buffoon by Ian Ferguson) stumbles along like a besotted puppy.
The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph (Montgomery Sutton) and Etienne (Drew Wall), struggle to invent the hot air balloon. Joseph's wife, Simone, (Jenny Ledel) can't make him see that she and her baby are starving. A talking statue (Maryam Baig) appears. The Talking Man (Gregory Lush as a dangerously sexy emcee in a suit with doll arms as lapels) tries to keep order among the hoi polloi. And then, whoosh, down a chute flies lost-in-time astronaut "hero, lover and hair enthusiast" Chase Spacegrove (Seth Magill, whose acting has improved considerably). Chase wears tight pants and has a Han Solo ego. Like the unmasked wizard desperate to escape Oz, he commandeers the brothers' balloon, played by a repurposed grocery cart.
After intermission, characters and time periods shoot forward. Harms now is Marie (Curie perhaps?), searching frantically for one word that could save all of mankind. A pushy bureaucrat (Anastasia Munoz) appears. The lyrics "hear the machines, hear what they say, conform, conform, obey, obey" seem to warn of a dystopian future when individuality is punished. Chase drops in to shake things up again. Toward the end he comes down that chute playing a tuba.
There's more. Lots more. All accompanied by the toe-tapping songs "Are We Chameleons?," "Waking Sleeping," "Rocket," "Stop the Noise" and eight others. Each main character has his or her own theme music.
The numbers throb and swing from the pit in the corner, directed by Shawn Magill on keyboards. Kitchen Dog actor Max Hartman here is the drummer. Johnny Sequenzia sings backup vocals and plays harmonica and mandolin. On cello, Steven Ramirez. (Funny how you don't realize how much a cello adds to a rock musical until you hear one.) Abbey Magill, one of the step-dancers, plays the xylophone, too.
The acting ensemble, dressed in layers of gray, zoom in and out, tidying up the microphone cords as they go. Standouts are Shannon McCauley, Kristin McCollum, Cara L. Reid, Aspen Taylor and Katy Tye.
"Dancers," cracks Greg Lush as the slithery Talking Man, "are like actors with less eating and more cigarettes." This show is funny. Funny/strange and funny/ha-ha. When Marie Antoinette offers to show one of the Montgolfiers "the grounds" of Versailles, she simply lifts her skirt to reveal an underside painting of a garden maze. (Costumes by Bruce Coleman are a big improvement over the 2012 staging.) "Should we take the watch collection?" asks King Louis, packing to escape the mobs. "There's no time, Louis!" answers his wife.
Make time, about two and a half hours of it, to see On the Eve, an evening of words and music that will make you feel good about a great many things. About the state of theater in our fair city. About the surprisingly emotional pull of two women in heavy tap shoes hammering the floor in a syncopated beat. About where we are right now at this moment in this universe in this lifetime. There is joy in this musical. You might well up with it, as much of the audience did opening night, during the final, magical bit of stagecraft that wraps up the show.
A character in On the Eve says it this way: "I smell poetry ... and love ... and discovery!" Oh, yes!