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"ACE": Soaring Take Off, Bumpy Landing

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SHOW INFORMATION: Through September 28; Tues - Weds at 7:30PM, Thurs - Fri at 8PM, Sat at 2 & 8 PM, Sun at 2 & 7PM.  Tickets: $49 - $77.  Call 703.573.7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.  

out of five.  2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.

 

ACE, the alternately thrilling and disappointing new musical which opened last night at Virginia's Signature Theatre, is much like the key props in the show.  Those props are a series of scale models of WWI and WWII fighter planes, and they offer a pretty, detailed version of the real thing.  The show, like those models, is close proximity of a terrific musical, but it may look like it can fly, but barely takes off.  On paper, ACE has winner written all over it - a large cast full of Broadway names, including 4 divas, a beautifully evocative score that sounds like flying, and an emotional, thoroughly American story.  And, truth be told, each of those elements soar separately (making it worth the trip to Arlington for true musical theatre buffs), but ultimately, the payoff is much less than the build up. 

To begin with, Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor's book has a great premise.  A young boy in the 1950's is sent to live with foster parents after his mother attempts suicide.  He is miserable, and rightly so: his mother is a mess and his father is non-existent.  In order to get her son back, the mother must prove she is stable; in order to do that, she must prove her worth to her son by telling him the story of his father.  Since she can have no contact with him directly, she sends him various clues about his past - diary entries, photographs, and those model planes - so that he can fully understand and appreciate how they got to this point in their lives.  Told much like the film Titanic, the tale moves easily between the present and the past.  Unfortunately, a great premise (along with several interesting subplots) isn't enough when the conclusion is unsatisfying.  Some of the most interesting characters have great stories that ultimately just stop with no conclusion to them.  And the final moments of the play take a surreal, supernatural turn that is a poor fit for the rest of the show.  

Their score, with stunning orchestrations by Greg Anthony, is much less problematic.  It is an interesting mix of modern recitative (the opening number, "It's Better This Way" is a toe-tapper to boot), patriotic/aviation-feeling pieces ("In These Skies", "We're the Only Ones") and character songs that range from fun numbers ("Make It From Scratch") to moving ballads like the powerful "That's What It Should Say."  I can not stress just how gorgeous the music is and beautifully it is being played.  But, and it is a big one, for those of you who like to hum the tunes you hear afterward, good luck.  It isn't even 24 hours later, and I couldn't hum you a tune from ACE if my life depended on it. 

Director Eric Schaeffer has taken all of this potential and created a decidedly uninteresting, workman-like staging, with every moment and movement as precise as the faux rivets which line every surface of Walt Spangler's shiny metallic set.  The result is an odd mix of concept musical and old-fashioned staging, and all of it pretty flat and hard to stare at for 2-plus hours.  What little choreography there is (supplied by Karma Camp) serves the time period well, but does little to amp up the energy.  Spangler's set is equally uninteresting, though the first time the center platform raises and tilts, it is mildly exciting.  The other dozen times it does so only underscores the fact that it isn't going to do anything else.  But perhaps most disconcerting is the missed opportunity to provide some flare - the costumes, designed by Robert Perdziola.  True, having everyone who is in the 1950's in black and white (like TV!) and having the past be colorful is a good concept, but YIKES! Those costumes are, well, ugly.  (If I were Christane Noll, I'd be on the phone to my agent...)  Of the entire creative team, only Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz (lighting) and Michael Clark (projection design) seem to have been inspired at all. 

So, you are probably wondering where the "thrills" are that I mentioned in he opening sentence.  That, readers, is simple.  The cast is wonderful and way better than the script (as it stands now) deserves, seeing as most of them are in roles that offer incomplete or non-existent arcs.  The aforementioned divas - the great Florence Lacey, Christiane Noll, Emily Skinner and relative newcomer Jill Paice - alone make the show worth seeing.  Ms. Lacey is in fine form as the starchy social worker with a sense of humor and a fair amount of gravitas.  Ms. Noll, saddled with an impossibly annoying character that morphs into a selfish, bitter woman, has probably the hardest task with the audience, but she does each aspect of the character well, even if the script never allows her to earn our respect or hatred or anything.  Ms. Skinner, long overdue for a vehicle that amply shows off her considerable talents, will still be searching for one after the run concludes.  She is very good, as always, here playing a tentative, but loving foster mother/mother to be, part frazzled, part terrified, but always warm.  Her number, "Make It From Scratch" wants to be a comic showstopper, and she does everything she can with it, but it is a dud, that obviously needs excising.  Finally, Ms. Paice does a butterfly-like metamorphosis, starting out as a more than annoying sad sack and turning into a beautiful vibrant woman.  Hers is the most interesting and most complete story in the show, and Paice's performance is the glue the keeps the whole thing together. 

The ensemble is a terrific bunch of actors/singers, even the horribly underutilized women.  The men (George Dvorsky, Richard Barth, Jason Reiff and Danny Rothman)have more to do, each playing flying aces of both World Wars, and they do everything they can with the difficult (if dull) staging of several dogfights, and their big act two number, "We're the Only Ones" is a highlight.  Future star (and I mean it; this kid is going to be huge) Angelina Kelly, is sweet, smart and steals every scene she is in as Danny's only friend.  She laps up the chance to play the odd kid like cream, and the only disappointing thing about her performance is that there isn't more of it.  Her story line simply stops, like the writers were on a clock that, when it the alarm went off, it was all pens down.  It seems they just forgot how to bring her part of the story to a close. 

Jim Stanek and Matthew Scott as two generations of ace fighter pilots play their roles well, with the appropriate macho swagger and equal parts humility.  They are both a hero's hero.  Mr. Stanek delivers the complete version of the oft-reprised "In These Skies" very well.  Mr. Scott, with the fullest story, doesn't even appear (as Ace) until act two, and he infuses the much better half of the show with charisma and undeniable presence. 

The center of the show, 10 year-old Danny, is played very well by Dalton Harrod, another young actor with a potentially long career ahead if him.  He plays world-weary, angry/sad like a pint sized Walter Matthau, with impeccable timing and a pleasant, untrained sounding voice.  That is to say, he sounds like an actual kid, not an American Idol drone.  He is thoroughly engaging, even when he spends long periods observing.  Ultimately, you find yourself rooting for him from the start, even when his bratty ways could easily turn off the audience. 

Rumor has it (and the casting would support it) that ACE has Broadway aspirations.  I'd suggest an overhaul at a secluded hangar before making that move.  The shell of this plane looks great, but the engine doesn't work.

 

PHOTOS by Stan Barouh.  TOP to BOTTOM: The Fighter Pilots of ACE; Christiane Noll as Ruth; Duke Lafoon, Emily Skinner, Dalton Harrod and Florence Lacey; Dalton Harrod and Emily Skinner; "We're the Only Ones" - The Fighter Pilots; Jill Paice and Matthew Scott; Dalton Harrod and Angelina Kelly.


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