From “My One and Only” through “Steel Pier” and “Wings” to “The Drowsy Chaperone,” many are the musicals that have employed an aviation motif, particularly the earliest barnstorming days, as shorthand for the joy of life and a quest for freedom. None, however, has so doggedly exploited the flyboys metaphor for the purpose of personal redemption and moral uplift as “Ace,” a well-meaning but thin tuner that, despite a dual plot and multilevel setting, never quite seems to fill the Old Globe stage space.
“Ace” is one of those largely presentational tuners whose characters are forever stepping into a spotlight and telling us in song exactly what they’re feeling. Conflicts we’d enjoy seeing played out — like a mother and wife’s battle for the soul of their fella — are foregone in favor of yet more direct address, legit a technique that erodes believability and interest.
Prologue introduces us to troubled 10-year-old Billy (Noah Galvin), unhappily billeted with foster parents in St. Louis after mom’s failed suicide attempt. Hopeless and alone, misunderstood by all, Billy is haunted by the missing father he never knew.
And haunted is the word. Plot kicks in a la “A Christmas Carol” with nightly visitations from the square-jawed, Steve Canyon-ish Ace (Darren Ritchie). This Ghost of Aviation Past favors Billy with a virtual miniseries of wartime and homefront events from 1917 through 1942 that gradually reveal a family’s legacy of honorable sacrifice and, to the surprise of Billy but of no one in the aud, the identity and backstory of his dad.
Needless to say, all are magically healed in the end, and the theme of “you can choose to fly” comes through loud and clear. But script delves no deeper.
Dream conceit is clunky and pat, suggestive not of a kid’s unconscious, but of the heavy hand of librettists Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor. Whose dreams pick up exactly where each previous night’s episode ended?
From the beginning, Ace could tell the boy everything he needs to know by cutting to the (airborne) chase, but then events wouldn’t pad out to fill an evening. If any of Billy’s relatives had kept a scrapbook, there’d be no show.
And the dreams themselves are a melange of military movie cliches, familiar “Band of Brothers” stuff with ironic asides. WWI scenes are all mamzelles and mustard gas and oh-what-tragic-waste. WWII is characterized by noble camaraderie complete with multiethnic squadron. Stateside, a set of interchangeable women sing their letters to the boys, keep the home fires burning and mourn their losses.
There’s one terrific tune, “In These Skies,” sold by Michael Arden as a WWI daredevil’s explanation of the appeal of the air, but most of composer Oberacker’s score is one power ballad after another, lyrics short on eloquence but long on generic sentiments of self-awareness.
The caliber of the cast is what keeps “Ace” aloft. Galvin has fine singing pipes just the right side of overtrained, and he can act when he has to. Arden and Ritchie are genuine musical comedy stars in the making, while Gabrielle Boyadjian as Billy’s Hermione-esque pal, and Betsy Wolfe as the foster mom out of Lucy Ricardo, pull off amusing musical turns, albeit extraneous to the story.
Prod is a mixed bag visually. Christopher Akerlind, beyond providing all those character spots, conjures up colorful variations on the cloudy sky-blue cyclorama to evoke the horrors of war and, at the eleventh hour, the vast expanse of starry space that provides show’s one breathtaking moment.
But David Korins’ constructivist set of platforms, meant to convey both the St. Louis Arch and the struts of a biplane, is underused, and director Stafford Arima has elected to maintain the platform containing Billy’s bed and nightlight as an ugly distraction upstage center through all of the dream scenes.
Property’s future prospects might be enhanced by reducing the scope of the piece to Billy’s investigation of his family tree, cutting extraneous songs and keeping the romance to a minimum so as to target a youth audience responsive to the self-actualization message.