Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007 | The highly original “Ace: The Musical” made its West Coast debut at the Old Globe Theatre last week. Set in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri, “Ace” follows the lives and losses of three generations of fathers and sons. Themes of the heroism and sacrifices of early aviators meld with sentiments of loss and loneliness and all surround young Billy (Noah Galvin), the central character.
“Ace” takes off with a promising start. Singing powerfully, characters weave in and out onstage, circling like vultures and admonishing Billy, the local outcast with a suicidal mother. The choreography and layering of the ensemble’s vocals mix with the emotionally tinged music. It reminded me of the overture of “The Who’s Tommy.” That’s a good thing.
As the story evolves, it’s evident the young Billy isn’t just a preliminary child-actor, filling the role of Billy until he grows up and is replaced by an older actor. That’s another good thing because Noah Galvin can sing. Onstage nearly the entire show, Galvin’s voice never fades or loses clarity. He delivers wisecracks, exhibits the awkward mannerisms of childhood and handles tear-jerking scenes with earnestness, maturity and control.
Reluctantly sent to a foster home straight out of “Leave It to Beaver” with Edward (an engaging Duke Lafoon) and Louise (wonderfully quirky Betsy Wolfe), Billy remains sullen and withdrawn. Bullied at school, uneasy in his new “home,” Billy begins dreaming of an aviator called Ace (Darren Ritchie).
And then “Ace” starts to stall. Dangerously close to over-doing it, the show begins to veer closely to the easy tear-jerker route. Whenever a musical feels “forced” it loses some of its luster, and “Ace” does come perilously close to flying down that path. Luckily for this production, its complete originality and the quirky, likeability of the cast overshadows most mawkishness. Clever details like making wonderful use of wisecracks and sarcastic humor (watch for Louise’s delightful cookie-making-as-a-metaphor-for-parenting number) keep “Ace” from dipping into the maudlin.
Another possible stall: There are no planes in this show. The set is a clever skeleton of bi-plane’s wings that form a star. There are runway lights onstage. The actors, however, move as if they are their own airplane — falling into formation and moving and using their bodies as their aircraft. This is a risk — taking a gamble — and putting faith in the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief that overrides the abstractness of the idea. Once disbelief is suspended, the synchronicity of the actors-as-planes’ movements, the control of motion all the while portraying pilots on a mission impresses mightily. It helps, of course, that the pilots all carry the cool swagger typified by squads like The Flying Tigers: leather jackets, aviator glasses and white scarves.
Other standouts in the cast include: Michael Arden (last seen at the Globe in “The Times They Are A-Changing”) as handsome pilot John-Robert always delivers, successfully handling his role vocally and theatrically. Darren Ritchie embodies the easy confidence, the heady masculinity of Ace. Without exception, Lisa Datz does wonderfully in her interpretation of Billy’s bereaved mother Elizabeth. Heather Ayers as Ruth, John Robert’s love, artfully develops her character from sweet, free-spirit to bitter old woman.
While Galvin’s Billy rightfully received a standing ovation, Gabrielle Boyadjian’s mousy, Nancy Drew obsessed Emily delighted the audience.
The ensemble cast does double-time, covering multiple roles. The entire cast deserves credit for cohesiveness and skill. The music matches the emotional themes of “Ace,” songs alternately soar like the flying machines, are frenzied during the pilots’ dangerous missions and become gentle in tender moments.
Composer, co-lyricist and co-librettist Richard Oberacker along with co-lyricist and co-librettist Robert Taylor capture the breathtaking, delicate fancy of flight along with the trials and tribulations of parenting and family and the sadness of loss.
“Ace: The Musical,” now playing at the Old Globe Theatre through Feb. 18