“He comments, he doesn’t create,” one of On the Eve‘s characters says about the Talking Man (Gregory Lush), urging other players to take up arms against the Talking Man’s narrative authority. Thus far, Lush has been our somewhat unreliable guide through the musical’s fits and starts, equal parts cruel circus master and overbearing director. Dark and volatile, he has his version of the story to tell; the characters, swimming back to consciousness across space and time, have another. If it’s meant as needling barb to critics, who by nature comment, and only occasionally create, well, it would appear that we have universally adored this new musical. And if the random calamity makes us wish we’d done something different—worked harder or equally as hard but in a different direction, been more talented or more determined—then that’s our baggage to hoist home.
On the Eve, presented by Nouveau 47 and Spacegrove Productions, is a collaboration between the local band Home by Hovercraft, fronted by the husband and wife team of Seth and Shawn Magill, and the actor and Kitchen Dog Theater company member Michael Frederico, who wrote an expansive, quite funny, and somewhat absurdist book that recalls Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author to accompany the heart-pounding score. Thanks to where I was sitting, I spent some time squinting at the drummer—that’s Kitchen Dog’s Max Hartman down there, and he pops out for a cameo in Act II. Shawn Magill, on the keyboard (and various other instruments), acts as musical director; Seth Magill takes the role of leading man.
The plot is a doozy, and too precise an outline might spoil some of the fun. We begin in pre-Revolutionary France, amid the first gasps impending rebellion, with the frothy Marie Antoinette (Martha Harms) and her husband, Louis XVI (Ian Ferguson, blessed with a knack for voices and accents) doing what they do best: hoarding money, looking pretty (costumes, by Martha Harms, are functional), and not having royal sex. The Talking Man (Lush, adept and increasingly terrifying) tells us their story, interwoven with a peasant couple, dutiful wife Simone (Jenny Ledel) and inventor Joseph (Brian Witkowicz), who has forgotten about his duties as husband and father in order to work on a time machine. He has been largely unsuccessful. Their daily lives are interrupted by the crash-landing of Chase Spacegrove (Seth Magill), self-styled as a good-looking hero. He knows how to fix Joseph’s time machine, of course, and we’d been expecting him.
But no one here is exactly who they seem—every character is a player in the strange play-within-a-musical, and the characters themselves experience slow-burn reversals as awareness creeps in. The flightiest of the all, Harms’ Marie Antoinette, goes from fluffy to flawed and questioning, to downright anarchist in the post-apocalyptic second act, a place where language and feeling would all be stamped out if not for the efforts of two rebels, Marie (Harms) and her sister Caroline (Jenny Ledel). Most of the singers are more than capable at the filling the small space; only Ledel seems shaky through her first solo but later finds her footing.
Director Jeffrey Schmidt has done something remarkable with the staging (he also designed the multi-level set), stretching the intimacy and inclusiveness of the experience to something new and exciting. The ceiling of the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park, a three-sided black box, is hung with a model of the solar system, the stage is dominated by a colorful wheel used to great affect at various points. The set, like the musical itself, is full to bursting but never pops, despite the large cast and high-flying ideas (and rampant idealism, for that matter, that borders on the vainglorious).
The experience is a novel one, right down to the clever clogging of the two talented Irish dancers (Abbey Magill and Shannon McCauley) that infuses the music with percussive sound and the idea of a living, bleeding statue (played by Maryam Baig) who ends up having the greatest instinct for self-preservation. And even if one of the characters gets a little preachy toward the end, spouting rapturously about the importance of language, or wait, is it music, or sound or both, what of it? It’s still the most fun I’ve had at a show in ages; what’s more, the cast and crew seem to feel the same way. It’s alchemy of casting and process, but also of a freewheeling story that actively disclaims perfection yet still holds together admirably.