- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

Thank goodness “Ace” isn’t aboard a major airline, or Signature Theatre would be responsible for zillions of dollars in extra baggage fees.

This new musical by composer Richard Oberacker and lyricist Robert Taylor, which seems destined for an aviation museum theater rather than the Broadway stage, depicts the shedding of emotional and past burdens so you can soar freely. However, the show is weighed down with too many ambitions and subplots and an overriding sense of angst and malaise that keeps “Ace” from ever gaining altitude.

“Ace” mainly suffers from an identity problem. Is it a singing recruitment poster for the Air Force? A mood piece about a sullen boy named Danny (Dalton Harrod) and his relationship with his suicidal mother, Elizabeth (Jill Paice)? Or is it a musical whodunit about Danny’s aeronautical heritage, which not coincidentally parallels the pioneering history of America’s air service during the two world wars?

The musical also deals with schoolyard bullies, overbearing military moms, the anxieties of foster parents, male bonding during combat, and the vital importance of home-baked cookies. It contains an almost lethal cargo of schmaltz that further holds down the production.

Even with a top-notch cast, vibrant costumes by Robert Perdziola and a snazzy, streamlined steel set by Walt Spangler, a gifted director such as Eric Schaeffer cannot make a Gulfstream jet out of this bucket of bolts.

The score seems largely standard, and the lyrics are of the conversation-mimicking variety that fails to tell a story or reveal character through song. The numbers that express the musical’s overall theme of flight and personal independence, “In These Skies” and “Choose to Fly,” sound like watered-down versions of the showstopper “Defying Gravity” from the musical “Wicked.”

One of the biggest problems is Danny, who is kind of a pill rather than a main character you can get behind, and because his role is mostly reactionary, the young actor is required to spend large amounts of time standing frozen and gape-mouthed on the stage while the flashback scenes unfold around him. He is eclipsed by the almost criminally adorable Angelina Kelly, playing Danny’s fellow outcast, the owlish and resourceful Emily.

Other female roles are not as ingratiating; you are not entirely sympathetic to Danny’s mother, Elizabeth, although Miss Paice portrays her as compellingly fragile.

The role of Danny’s grandmother Ruth (powerfully sung by Christiane Noll) is more problematic, as she comes off as a warmongering shrew and fly-boy snob who railroads everyone in her life. It’s a good thing she never met Danny, or he would be piloting a Huey in Vietnam. The female character you warm up to the most is a ‘50s housewife aching to be a mother, a deeply felt performance by Emily Skinner.

The males don’t fare much better; Danny’s grandfather (Jim Stanek) and Ace (Matthew Scott) seem like generically handsome and heroic pilots, characters out of a war B-movie. In order to fly right, “Ace” needs to straighten up and lighten the load.

★★

WHAT: “Ace,” music by Richard Oberacker, book and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 S. Campbell Ave., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Through Sept. 28.

TICKETS: $49 to $77

PHONE: 703/573-7328

WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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