ON THE EVECreated by Seth Magill, Shawn Magill and Michael Federico
Directed by Jeffrey Schmidt
Musical Direction by Shawn Magill
Set Design by Jeffrey Schmidt
Costume Design by Bruce Richard Coleman
Lighting Design by Amanda West
Sound Design by Marco E. Salinas
Sound Engineering by Kellen Voss
Choreography by Sara J. Romersberger
Music/Video Design by Shawn Magill
CAST in alphabetical order:
Maryam Baig – Statue
Ian Ferguson – Louis/Doug/HAMOTCB
Dante Flores – Ensemble
Martha Harms – Antoinette/Marie
Jenny Ledel – Simone/Caroline/3PJ
Gregory Lush – Talking Man/Captain Boulder
Abbey Magill – Dancer/Ensemble
Seth Magill – Chase Spacegrove
Tara Magill – Young Antoinette/Young Marie
Shannon McCauley – Dancer/Ensemble
Kristin McCollum – Simone’s Mother/Mother
Anastasia Muñoz – Dr. Scientist/Bureaucrat
Cara L. Reid – Great Ghost of the 11th Dimension
Montgomery Sutton – Joseph
Aspen Taylor – Ensemble
Katy Tye – Ensemble/Understudy
Drew Wall – Étienne/Pundit
Home by Hovercraft band members in alphabetical order
Max Hartman – drums
Abbey Magill – xylophone
Seth Magill – tuba
Shawn Magill – piano/synthesizer/percussion/vocals
Steven Ramirez – cello
Johnny Sequenzia – mandolin/harmonica/vocals
Reviewed Performance: 1/20/2014
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
These memories came back to me during Theatre Three’s production of On the Eve. A visual and acoustic smorgasbord that powered the senses from all sides, the setting, sound effects, music, lighting and costuming took the audience on the make-believe adventure of a lifetime.
Past reviews and “Best of” lists from the musical’s workshop production last year labeled it a “sci-fi fantasy”, a “rock musical”, or a musical spin on the wit, action and bizarre oddity of Terry Gilliam films. Unlike other rock musicals like the slim story of Rock of Ages or the more historical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, another rock musical produced at Theatre Three two years ago, that followed a loosely-built plotline, On The Eve layers the story-telling art of Cirque du Soleil, a play-within-a-play within-a-play, a bit of history, and an apocalyptic baseline for all you dystopian fans. Those who feel safer with a traditional A-Z plotline will find themselves struggling here, but any discomfort will be fully alleviated once you open to the possibilities.
My own interpretation, with help from Bookwriter Michael Federico and Music Designer Shawn Magill, the audience walks into an old, abandoned theatre somewhere in the future during a war of apocalyptic proportions (understanding the location was greatly aided by the huge architectural drawing of the upper balconies of a grand theatre hung across the entire south wall of T3’s space). To keep hope alive and insanity at bay, the people perform a story they have invented over and over again. Apparently, it has always been acted and sung the same way with the same outcome, but this time the story shifts and things begin to go awry. The group’s leader (and their play’s narrator) begins to lose his control, and the story changes direction and focus until the actors gain back the ending they need to keep hope alive, that is, within the boundaries they have so carefully devised.
A bit of a nod to Doctor Who, the play within a play’s story lands in pre-Revolution France and the “almost entirely true” tale of weak king, Louis XVI, and his “Let them eat cake!” wife, Marie Antoinette. The invention of the hot air balloon was at hand, and with the arrival of a time-traveling hero astronaut, characters bounce through history to their ill-fated landing in a totalitarian future.
I kept noticing each place in history the motley crew landed was a time just at the eve of change – the French people’s revolt, political or religious upheaval, the age of flight, the budding of love or modern science.
Much more than the acting or set or lighting, the story and the music are the complete heart and soul of On The Eve. Co-creators, Shawn and Seth Magill, wrote the twelve-song score for the musical. Both members of local band, Home by Hovercraft, the songs held related themes that than wove into the storyline – I noticed several spoke of sleeping or reawakening, change, and reality vs. dreaming.
I was excited to hear Music Director/Designer Shawn Magill’s use of pre-show, intermission and post-show music from other bands in the Texas region. Taking inspiration from their work, she interlocked themes that shifted as the story progressed. Deftly controlling mood, she used organic, introspective music as the audience entered and space and actors readied themselves onstage. As the musical began, the live music’s motif grew into a declaration along with the story. During intermission, Shawn’s choices became more dream-like and spacey, but also more severe and electronic. Back into the story, music edged a strict, militaristic line as the people revolted and, finally, into a most joyful, hope-filled ending.
Talking to Seth Magill afterward, I congratulated him and Shawn on using regional musicians and crediting them in the playbill, since most plays that use music may name the songs but never the songwriters or musicians – most times they do neither. Being a musician himself, Seth said he and Shawn felt it normal and appropriate to give fellow musicians their rightful due. I could not agree more.
Shawn Magill needed a back-story of sorts in order to create and select the music for the musical. I loved that crucial for her design was to imagine someone finding an old hard drive or music player amongst the rubble that contained songs from our time period and some older favorites. The tracks are escapes for the people, and the only thing they have to listen to besides the music they create and the sounds of gunfire and bombs outside. What a lovely insight to Shawn’s creative process and her immense talent. A repeated line from the song “Veneers” – “We are all in the disco” – and the rhythmic, hypnotic song “Modernized” still drum in my head.
Some of the onstage musician’s instruments were not the norm for a typical “rock band” – xylophone, tuba, cello, mandolin, along with harmonica, piano, synthesizer and drums – had a thrown-together effect that supported the story wonderfully. A genius move was to include the percussive sound of two Irish step dancers. Choreographed by Sara J. Romersberger, Abbey Magill and Shannon McCauley stepped upstage of the band and center stage, their highly accented downbeat adding a crisp, sharp sound to the revolution marches or stark coldness of the time-travelers plight. (Best line of the night – Someone asks who the girls are. Reply: “They’re dancers – like actors with less eating and more cigarettes”).
“A true ensemble” production is often used when describing a cast that works together well. Seldom, if ever, do I remember a director choreographing a curtain call where no actor took a lead bow. The seventeen actors took hands and circled at center stage, acknowledging the applause in all directions. In a musical where the actors play layer upon layer of characters as different stories emerge, ensemble comradery is not only helpful, it’s essential. Some actors peaked my interest not so much because of ability or their energy, as everyone had that down pat, but with their “presence” every moment they were onstage.
I was intrigued by Maryam Baig’s portrayal of The Statue, not only by the characterization but with the imagery of people stabbing her enough to bleed while she posed motionless. A symbol of the denigration of art and the artist, her character haunted me. Baig’s ability to be both alluring and comical made her a standout.
Cast in the ensemble, Dante Flores caught my eye time and time again as he and the other actors ran in and out of scenes, became screaming groupies for the rock star singers, and aided the other actors to shine. Flores’ joyous attitude and infectious love of being onstage was a pleasure to watch.
Playing Marie Antoinette could be a wild ride, considering her noted reputation. Martha Harms left nothing on the table, portraying the famous woman, powdered and towered wig and all, her vocal and physical abandon exhilarating. Transitioning flawlessly in body language, voice and attitude, from a complete ditz-head to a reincarnated, introspective Marie on the verge of discovery, was the mark of real talent.
I love to watch actors when not the center of a scene or in places where the focus does not lie. Director Jeffrey Schmidt, to bring more intimacy to the space, had the actors play the four audience aisles. Completely out of a scene and lighting but still able to be seen, Gregory Lush was so into the action onstage you’d think he had a spotlight on him. He never dropped his character to merely stand “offstage”, and was so in the moment my head had to turn toward him, his energy was that powerful. Both his Talking Man and Captain Boulder were evil, vindictive characters and he played them with gusto and that nasty, manipulative smile.
Playing Chase Spacegrove, the supposed hero of the time-travelers, Seth Magill was like a kid on a candy high. Full of guff and bluff, Magill’s character was the one the people relied on to take the story home. His energy and ease onstage was infectious, he sang with conviction and played a mean tuba. In an interview, Magill said, “It’s hard to relive the open heart and imagination I possessed as a kid”. I believe he found that kid in him while in the role of Spacegrove. I mean, who wouldn’t, donned in biker boots, cowboy gun holster, French-red waist sash, black leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet, pretending to be an astronaut!
Drew Wall played double characters - that of Etienne, the co-inventor, with brother Joseph, of the hot air balloon, and Pundit, who by his name, was a rather, narcissistic, authoritative man of loud means. Wall’s comedic physicality for both was over-the-top hilarious, even if being serious, as Etienne was toward getting Joseph to move it along, invention-wise. And who would have thought someone slowly sliding down a ramp while keeping perfectly still could produce such uproarious laughter?
Realism has not been a predominant element for most of Jeffrey Schmidt’s set designs. While On The Eve has areas of reality, he loves to leave much to our imagination. To further bring the audience into the acting space, long rolls of paper were hung on all four back walls, the best one being the aforementioned drawing of theatre balconies from the perspective of someone standing onstage. Another wall had several drawings and schematics of hot air balloons. The remaining two walls were used for word and art graffiti from those who have lived in the space a long while. The light and sound booth was moved to the upper tier of the northwest corner, above an entrance/exit. A huge, copper boiler vat held attention in one corner while the band was set up opposite. A colorful piñata-esque planetary system hung above center stage, and during one song became a glittery disco ball. Thin cables ran from four stationary light poles onstage up over the audience’s heads . . . most curious.
The most interesting, most used set piece was the center stage revolving cylinder placed on what quickly reminded me of a minefield bomb, with its flat top and slightly ramped sides. The whole contraption became a bed, a drafting table, a guillotine, a time-traveling device and more. Actors made speeches on it, danced around it, slept under it, turned it again and again with the use of a coiled rope. It was the centerpiece, literally, of the musical and almost a character in itself.
Not a part of the set, but equally as important, is the “wall of the missing”, several cubicles in the hallway of the theatre the actors created as a shrine for those “missing in war”. As well, there are photos of some local theatre friends no longer with us. Take a little time to wander through.
Lighting by Amanda West was both simple in design and creative in execution. Grid instruments were very basic – either a simple wash overall or black light for one scene. The use of small, decorative chandeliers overhead, household flood lights set in the onstage light poles, and the stark, uncompromising hue of florescent tubes around the band added realistic illumination within the abandoned theatre of the musical. During intermission, the actors and crew changed out floodlights for spot CFL’s, moving the time period up technically. Not merely lighting the production itself, West brought the lighting “to the people”, giving the inner story more meaning.
Bruce Richard Coleman must have hit all the costume shops and departments in a hundred mile radius! though many major pieces traveled from the workshop production, the actors had so many layers and changes going on I can’t imagine what the dressing and side rooms looked like! Since each actor is playing a variety of roles and period styles, the looks were bohemian, revolution-ragged, make-believe, hero and villain-gone-crazy stupendous. Women wore ankle and knee boots, corsets over blouses, frilly undergarments and stockings, long skirts with cinched waists, grey, ragged clothing, leggings or sneakers. Men went from Les Miz loose-fitting tops and pantaloon breeches, or 18th century wool suits to white T’s and tight pants. Lab coats and crowns, tricorn caps and Nazi hats, all were a mash up of time periods and a thrilling, if not overwhelming, visual.
Marco E. Salinas’ sound design was equally as thrilling, with unnerving sirens wailing around us and distant gunfire and bombs being the most realistic effects I’ve heard. The use of corded microphones with stands for all of the musical numbers was an interesting choice, maybe to again keep the realism within the space, as body mics would have taken us out of the story. They also lent some rock star appeal to the singers. The mic cords made for some quick stepping and watchful eyes during scenes, and actors were continuously rewinding them back in place, but they worked well. The one and only problem with the sound was the band, drowning out most of the lyrics for each song. I was sitting on an upper row at the level of the back speakers and thought maybe those lower would be able to hear, but talking to some afterward, they too had the same problem. A shame, since the lyrics are essential elements to the themes of the story.
Directing On The Eve must have been an exhilarating, challenge for Schmidt. The story is so frenetic and the power of the music so intense, it would be easy to lose hold on it. Instant transitions in characterizations like those in this musical could overwhelm an audience and, so, how to keep it all contained, somewhat understandable, and entertaining is the question. The answer is Schmidt’s innate ability to help the actors fearlessly take the riskiest of leaps, knowing he won’t let them fall. That, and casting actors willing to commit entirely to the project, is what makes him the right director for this musical.
The title of the musical, On The Eve, can have different connotations – on the eve of destruction, on the eve of revolution. For Theatre Three and the cast, musicians and crew of this musical, I believe the title stands for a production heading toward its deserved success. It may also stand for the dawn of a new era, where local playwrights, songwriters, musicians, directors, designers and actors take on riskier projects, and theatres support and produce more works by local artists. Hey, did you just feel the earth move?
To hear a selection of songs and link to more information on the bands included from Shawn Magill’s music design, go to Soundcloud’s playlist location: https://soundcloud.com/homebyhovercraft/sets/on-the-eve-a-new-musical-local/
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Runs through February 9th
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