Signature's 'Ace' Doesn't Earn Its Wings

Meet me in St. Hooey: Jill Paice as Elizabeth and Matthew Scott as Ace in Signature's
Meet me in St. Hooey: Jill Paice as Elizabeth and Matthew Scott as Ace in Signature's "Ace." (By Stan Barouh -- Signature Theatre)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

An aircraft will never reach the stratosphere if it takes on too much baggage. And neither, it seems, will a musical.

The instructive case in point is "Ace," Signature Theatre's new show about an angry kid and model airplanes and a long-absent father. And a mother who's tried to kill herself, and an angst-ridden foster couple, and a mystery involving grandma's diary and aerial combat and schoolyard bullying and wartime male-bonding and storytelling as a source of healing and flying as a metaphor for personal freedom and . . .

And, and, and. In concert with director Eric Schaeffer, composer Richard Oberacker and his lyrics-writing partner, Robert Taylor, have conceived a vehicle both pretty and pretty contrived. It's as if none of them could bring themselves to decide exactly what "Ace" was supposed to be about -- or maybe in the process of tweaking and tinkering, they simply lost track.

The venture certainly attracted the magnitude of acting and vocal talent that stamp a first-string Signature project, with the participation of the likes of Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll, Jill Paice and Jim Stanek. The smoothness in evidence is such that anyone contented with the glossy exteriors of inoffensive and well-sung musical drama might find that "Ace" fills the superficial bill. With some judicious trims, in fact, the aviation-themed "Ace" might be a candidate for long-term showcasing at a venue such as the Air and Space Museum.

But a slew of classy actors -- and a few strategic injections of schmaltz -- cannot disguise the show's shortcomings, its laboriously incremental plotting and a passel of characters too schematically rendered to be taken to heart. It's a measure of how hard it is to warm up to many of them that an audience falls so instantly and madly for a pint-sized actress named Angelina Kelly, playing the secondary role of playground busybody Emily.

Never mind that precocious little Angelina, in glasses that make her eyes look as large as plums, is preternaturally cute and funny. (Lucy, of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" fame, is doubtless in her future.) From the second she enters partway through Act 1, Angelina's character feels solidly, incontrovertibly alive. It helps that she's apportioned a comedy number, "Now I'm on Your Case," that allows her adorableness quotient to spike.

Skinner, seen to delightful effect last year in Signature's zesty "Witches of Eastwick," brings a becoming fragility to another supporting part: that of a woman of deep empathy desperate to be a mother. Notably, too, Noll, Paice, Stanek and Matthew Scott apply ear-pleasing lung power to Oberacker and Taylor's generic-sounding ballads and conversation-mimicking song fragments.

Unfortunately, though, many of the performances are pushed to the side in the relentless march of exposition. The setup is straightforward enough. In 1950s St. Louis, a distraught woman named Elizabeth (played by Paice) has tried to commit suicide. As a result, her agitated 10-year-old son, Danny (Dalton Harrod), has been taken from her by a well-meaning social worker (Florence Lacey) to live with a deserving local couple (Skinner and Duke Lafoon) who have been aching to adopt.

What follows puts the musical on a dubious, fitful course, in which the recovering Elizabeth traces the history of her own sadness by uncovering the diary of her now-dead mother-in-law (Noll). For reasons that might be baffling even to a forensic psychiatrist, Elizabeth decides to send, via the social worker, installments of the diary -- along with models of vintage planes -- to Danny so that he can learn the truth about his parents' early lives. Although why this information was withheld, and what the stories are supposed to offer to him, are not the kind of questions -- at least in "Ace" -- that usher in a whole lot of dynamic possibility.

The questions do, however, provide a rationale for elaborate flashbacks to earlier decades and the courtships of Danny's parents and grandparents, as well as to the combat heroics of Danny's granddad (Stanek) and father (Scott) -- the latter's nickname giving the show its title. Time is color-coded in "Ace"; while the palette of Robert Perdziola's '50s costumes is all shades of gray, the people in the past are decked out in such Necco-wafer colors as wintergreen and orange. (Possibly because to Danny, the history his mother slowly parcels out to him is far more intriguing than his present.)

Choreographer Karma Camp helps to ensure past and present commingle fluidly on Walt Spangler's clean, mechanistic set, dominated by a pair of towering steel structures that are meant, in "Ace's" cover-the-waterfront approach, to signify the soon-to-be-built Gateway Arch and the tails of fighter planes. A metal slab also rises center stage to become the cockpit of the grandfather's plane, from which Stanek belts the hummable Disney-movie-esque anthem, "In These Skies." (And on a balcony behind the stage sit the 13-member orchestra, expertly conducted by David Kreppel.)

As the unfolding events curlicue ever more digressively into the travails of relatives barely known to Danny -- who, by the way, is played with a disarming lack of affectation by Harrod -- the musical seems to travel further off course. Is this child really supposed to know how to absorb all this complicated data and curb his anger? (At one point in Act 2, we're taken in a bebop number even farther afield, to the campus where Elizabeth meets Ace and sings about her ambition to have a "nationally syndicated column." "Mencken! Winchell! Clemens and Pyle!," she sings, ticking off her journalistic idols.)

Somehow, we sense in Paice's other scenes that the spiritually broken Elizabeth never attained the distinction of distaff ink-stained wretch. Although it does seem she is a whiz at collating. Even so, as "Ace" demonstrates, an investment in organizational skills is no guarantee of producing a great story.

Ace, music by Richard Oberacker; book and lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Karma Camp; sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting, Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz; projections, Michael Clark; sound, Simon Matthews; orchestrations, Greg Anthony; music direction, David Kreppel. With Richard Barth, Jason Reiff, Danny Rothman, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Gabrielle Stravelli, Brooke Bloomquist. About 2 ½ hours. Through Sept. 28 at Signature Theatre, 4200 S. Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit

© 2008 The Washington Post Company