The new musical Ace at Signature Theatre tells a touching story of a boy learning about his father and grandfather. The story of the discovery is instigated by his single-mother’s suicide attempt. While the boy is in foster care, she sends him clues, letters, and visitors who unreel the story of these men who turn out to have both been fighter pilots, downed respectively in WWI and WWII. Yes, this is a plot that a well-timed 5 minute conversation in the boy’s life could have avoided, but then we wouldn’t have a musical, would we?
Richard Oberacker (score, book, lyrics) and Robert Taylor (book, lyrics) fit a lot into the two acts. You have the story of the boy, his mother, his foster parents, a schoolyard friend, the father, grandfather, and grandmother to tell. However, the first act packs it all together with style and efficiency and leaves a sense of mystery. Inevitably, when a number of these strands get tied up in the second act, the fine line separating inevitability and predictability gets occasionally crossed.
The music of the show strives for an approachable grandeur. I was often reminded of the Disney ride Soarin’ Over California. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the show contains so much underscoring, I hope that they’re paying the musicians double! In a show where so much of the music flows from one thing to the next, it’s hard to single out songs, however there are two that I can see having a life of their own in cabaretland. One is In These Skies, a soaring ballad about flying, and Make It From Scratch, an uproarious number of attempted domesticity.
And while one can quibble (as Mr. Marks certainly does) with the volume of storytelling, the two most delightful moments in the show are total divertissements. So one would miss Emily Skinner as the foster mother in the afore-loved Make It From Scratch and the amazing Angelina Kelly’s turn in Now I’m On Your Case.
The production itself is fabulous. I generally despise precocious children onstage. But Dalton Harrod plays the central character with a dignity that renders him sympathetic and endearing rather than bratty turning to precious. Similarly, Angelina Kelly as his young misfit friend brings a genuine shot of vinegar and adrenaline into her scenes. The grown-ups are all wonderful, especially the formidable female quartet of Jill Paice, Christiane Noll, Emily Skinner, and Florence Lacey. And the staging, set, lighting, costuming, and performances seem to all be on the same page, telling the same story to great effect.
In fact, I have to admit that I found the show a more satisfying production than The Visit earlier this year. And at a time when we are waging at least the second least-popular war in American history, the show paints an interestingly nuanced portrait of men committed to serve their country and fight the enemy.
In the promotion materials for this show, Signature has promoted the show as a “Broadway-Bound Premier.” Two things concern me about that. First is the fact that any audience is fortunate to see a show at Signature – the space is so intimate that sitting two rows from the back (as I was), one still feels that one is onstage with the actors. I do wonder how this show would translate to a larger house with greater separation between the stage and audience. Also, in a fit of bad-timing there are also two major shows opening this season dealing with thirteen-ish kids – Billy Elliot and 13, A New Musical. Go figure!
(I couldn’t fit it anywhere in the review, but there’s a line from the show I really loved. The Danny character responds to his despondent foster-mother’s apologies about his lunch with “It’s not life or death; it’s a sandwich!” – a sentiment that will live close to my heart.)
Pictured top — Dalton Harrod as Danny and Angelina Kelly as Emily Pictured middle — Emily Skinner as Louise
ACE at Signature Theatre, Aug 27 – Sept 28, 2008.