Book and Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker
Music by Richard Oberacker
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
ACE, Signature’s latest premiere (East Coast) musical directed by Eric Shaeffer, is a rambling mix of multigenerational, dysfunctional family saga and Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang heroic fighter pilot flash and dazzle. The production boasts an impressive cast and design team, so rich in performing talent that it must be difficult to identify and make the cuts and changes necessary to keep ACE airborne and on a clear flight path. Instead, the show seems to bounce down the runway, burdened by a cargo of way too much story — despite how interesting the subplots might be — and too few musically compelling moments.
As with another of Signature’s recent musicals, Happy Time, ACE is a period show shouldered by a young performer (here set in the 1950s) . Dalton Harrod plays the 10-year-old Danny, an only child in a single-parent family whose disturbed young mother has a past buried in alcoholism, depression, and mystery. Danny is placed in a foster home following a suicide attempt by his mother Elizabeth (Jill Paice), and he is a bundle of resentment. He isn’t a problem child at heart, he’s just written that way. Harrod has few moments to break through the wall of sadness and anger which imprison his character, but his acting is very engaging in these scenes. Unlike Annie, another child in custodial placement – only she was careless enough to lose both parents – Danny does not get his “Tomorrow” moment, but Harrod does his best to deliver his songs with conviction. The role itself needs more spunk and less belligerence (Annie, Huckleberry Finn, Mame and Paper Moon take pains to make the child lead abundantly sympathetic).
So how do a social worker (Florence Lacey as Mrs. Crandall) and the foster parents (Duke Lafoon and Emily Skinner as Edward and Louise) solve a problem like Danny? We soon learn that Elizabeth’s recovery is the key to Danny’s self-understanding. To unravel Elizabeth’s secret, the show spans half a century (encompassing both World Wars), taking place in three time periods and across several geographic locations, U.S. and abroad. It doesn’t boast the largest cast seen locally in recent musicals, but the story develops seven primary relationships (couples, adult-child, child-child), a few secondary relationships, and introduces a passel of characters instrumental to the narrative. That’s not to say that the story is too complicated to follow, but as Officer Lockstock sagely remarks in Urinetown, “You’re too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.” And too much story can so fragment a show into bits and pieces of exposition that it becomes difficult to satisfyingly set the whole music. For example, following the delightful overture, it is nearly thirty minutes into the first act before a fully-realized, full-bodied show song is performed. Moreover, the show is not sung through, so it is puzzling why some fragments are in song and others not.
The deep back story behind Danny’s mysterious family tree traces back to his paternal grandparents. Grandmother Ruth (Christiane Noll) is a maverick, unconventional and thrill-seeking, who forsakes a safe marriage for pioneer fighter pilot John Robert (Jim Stanek). If the cast names are beginning to sound familiar, you probably have a good number of Broadway cast recordings. As we witness Ruth’s highs and her lows, her mania for risk-taking and passion for heroism, the word bipolar comes to mind. Widowed and pregnant, we flash forward through the years as Ruth attempts to keep John Robert alive in their son, prophetically and prescriptively nicknamed Ace. However, the adult Ace (Matthew Scott) has a vision for his future all his own. His first meeting with Elizabeth as college freshmen is told through “I Know It Can Be Done,” a delightful duet for the likeable, ambitious pair. Karma Camp’s choreography for the duo is full of lighthearted fun. Fast forward again, and we see Ace leaving his new bride to go to war as did his father.
The pieces of Danny’s family puzzle unfold as Elizabeth comes to grips with her loss and begins to collect scraps from the past to salvage the memory of Danny’s father. These are passed on to Danny through his case worker, Mrs. Crandall/ Interspersed among the domestic scenes are episodes of military male bonding, air strikes and aerial dogfights, perhaps the best of these moments captured in The Right Stuff-inspired anthem, “We’re the Only Ones.”
There are two gems in the production firmly planted on terra firm which are over the moon musical comedy moments. Danny gets a little R&R escape from his troubles when fellow schoolyard outcast, Emily (Angelina Kelly), who doesn’t take no or go away for an answer, resolves to be his friend. Her rendition of the “Now I’m on Your Case” is designed to charm and amuse and it does both in spades. There is a Nancy Drew- girl detective show just waiting to be written for Kelly. Second, as nervous foster mom Louise, Emily Skinner walks a mile in Barbara Billingsley, Jane Wyatt and Donna Reed’s pumps. “Make It from Scratch” comically captures her anxiety in a perfectly pitched performance.
Walt Spangler has created a visually striking set which dominates the stage with twin steel towers and central diamond platform which turn and tilt and rise to support the action. The lighting design by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz washes the set in color to set the proper mood; and the project design by Michael Clark has the audience floating among the clouds from the show’s outset. The sets serve the aviation theme best but undercut the domestic scenes. A metal slab does conjure up a boy’s bed. The aircraft inspired towers help suggest a house or home; it is more than a little disconcerting to watch characters enter and exit scenes through doors more akin to airplane cabin doors or the pressurized hatches between submarine compartments. Fortunately, Robert Perdziola’s costumes work overtime to evoke the period for both the adults and children.
ACE is a show which clearly has captured the imagination of leading regional theatres around the country from its lauded premier at the Festival of New Musicals in 2005, to productions in the Fall of 2006 at Repertory Theatre in St. Louis and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, a 2007 run at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and now a restaging at Signature. If this were Lindberg’s flight, I’d say it was more than half way across the Atlantic with a good tailwind. The current incarnation has some perplexing loose ends, e.g., a womanizing WWI cad and bully later appears as a priest (and it’s not a case of cast member covering two roles), and Elizabeth’s ten-year long breakdown is glossed over. Also, there is a disconnect between the moral of the story and the details (the devilish details), specifically when the spirit of Ace urges his son Danny to “Choose to Fly.” The “follow your heart” metaphor of “flying” (whether in actual flight or in pursuing some other dream) is a bit of a problem when sung by a character who found his true calling by subjugating his desires to his mother’s ambitions for him. Some plot doctoring is needed to make the sentiment convincing unless a “Listen to Your Mother” ballad replaces the song. Let’s hope the doctor is in and that this often engaging show continues to get the attention it deserves.
When: Ace runs row thru Sept 28. Tues, Wed at 7:30 pm, Thurs, Fri, Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 7 pm, Matinees Sat & Sun at 2 pm.
Where: The Max at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA
Tickets: $61 – $77. Discounts available. For tickets, visit the website.