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`Ace' takes off but doesn't soar

The two young stars help lift a touching tale about a boy who finds out his father's identity.

January 24, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — If a computer program could spit out a new musical, the show might very well resemble "Ace," the high-flown sentimental epic by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker that's having its West Coast premiere at San Diego's Old Globe.

"Competent" is the word that springs to mind, which is, of course, better than incompetent, though for a work of art it's the equivalent of describing a child as good-natured rather than bright.

The checklist of ingredients is complete. There's a cute kid with a touching back-story for a protagonist. A central metaphor of aviation that serves as an endless source of pop psychological wisdom. A book that keeps upping the emotional ante in scene after melodramatic scene. And a score that upholds the anthem as the most powerful expression of our deepest feelings.

Actually, the experience isn't as cavity-inducing as it sounds. The production, directed by Stafford Arima, is like a warm bath that's relaxing for a while, at least until the water cools and you can't wait to grab a towel and wipe every drop of stale moisture from your skin.

Set in St. Louis in the 1950s, the story revolves around 10-year-old Billy, who's played with veteran savvy by Noah Galvin. The kid has had a lot of tough breaks. Billy doesn't know a thing about his father. His mother, Elizabeth (Lisa Datz), who spends much of the show wandering around like a zombie in a drab cardigan, would rather have him think he never had one. Colossally depressed, she's taken to the hospital one morning after Billy dials the operator in a panic when she won't wake up.

Mrs. Crandall (Traci Lyn Thomas), the child welfare worker who looks rather villainous in her no-nonsense office garb, brings Billy to live with a foster family while his mother recovers from her "severe nervous condition." Fortunately, the couple who take him in are welcoming, albeit in a jittery way, but Billy has a lot of psychological problems to unknot. He keeps getting into fights at school and can't respond to the kindness of his surrogate parents, even though he's secretly thrilled with the toy airplane his foster dad (Duke Lafoon) gives him to make him feel at home.

That gift opens up an avenue in his dreams in which the secret of his father's identity is finally revealed. Ace (Darren Ritchie) is the name of the World War II pilot who visits him nightly, whisking the boy across continents and historical periods. One minute Billy is following the tale of John Robert (Michael Arden), a fallen World War I fighter pilot; the next it's the saga of Ace, John Robert's son, who turns out to have married Billy's mother before coming to a similarly tragic end in an air battle on the Pacific front.

By day, Billy's life isn't half as adventurous or revelatory. His foster mom, Louise (Betsy Wolfe), sings a quirky ditty about the difficulty of making chocolate chip cookies from scratch. Meanwhile, his real mom trills with determination about regaining her sanity so that Billy will one day be able to live with her again. What a relief when she finds out that not only doesn't she have to tell him who his dad was but that her son has learned there are other ways to be a hero than flying a plane through a war zone.

Are we having fun yet? Not really. But a delightful diversion is provided by Billy's sidekick, Emily (Gabrielle Boyadjian), a fellow outcast at school who's like a pint-sized combination of Nancy Drew and Diane Keaton. Intrigued by the stories of Billy's nighttime escapades, she volunteers as a detective to help him figure out whether there's something supernatural or just plain psychopathic going on.

Oberacker's score is smooth and shallow, evaporating from the mind within moments of hitting the ear. It's the kind of sound that appeals to people who like musicals more than they like music. Taylor and Oberacker's lyrics have an obviousness that's of a piece with a show that prefers its sentiment freeze-dried and familiar.

So what's to like? "Ace" creates a spacious world that gets animated at a nice clip. The characterizations aren't subtle, but they're impressively varied, especially for such a large cast. And, finally, though you might not be moved by the journey, you have to admit that you've undergone one.

The staging has an attractive simplicity in which flying is simulated through a multi-tiered set that impressionistically invokes the wings of an old-fashioned airplane. That said, the visual memory would be brighter were it not for the schmaltzy "Choose to Fly" number that Ace belts out to Billy before the big finale.

The uneven ensemble features some first-rate singers (Arden and Ritchie are particularly strong), but it's the two standout youngsters who deserve a special hand. Boyadjian adds a dab of unexpected color to the cliched school scenes, and Galvin gallantly refuses to succumb to all the phony emotionalism. He's restrained where he could be self-indulgent, rarely offering more than what's warranted. Everyone should take a lesson.



Where: Old Globe Theater, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb.18

Price: $45 to $75

Contact: (619) 23-GLOBE

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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