Ace, the new musical receiving its East Coast premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, is obviously still a work in progress: the song list is in a state of flux, and apparently the title character used to have a lot more to do than he does now. Still, the piece has a lot of promise as well as some structural difficulties. (Start by changing the title to "In These Skies," after the song that serves as an anthem for the show.)
The musical by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker (book and lyrics), with music by Oberacker, uses the literal act of flight as a metaphor for discovery and creativity. In early 1950s St. Louis, as costumed by Robert Perdziola in a palette of gray, black, and white, 10-year-old Danny Lucas (Dalton Harrod) is the sullen, defensive child of Elizabeth (Jill Paice), an emotionally fragile single mother. When circumstances force Danny to move into a foster home, his mother sends him gifts to help him discover the family history she had never shared with him.
The strictly linear, schematic structure of Ace is a handicap. Each of Elizabeth's packages and instructionsseek out this person, read this letter, find out what is special about this model airplaneis, quite literally, part of a "by the numbers" approach to storytelling. Although the scenes do come to life onstage, they do so with more telling and less showing than one might wish for in a musical. Director Eric Schaeffer is hemmed in here by the material.
Harrod is the emotional center of the production, and he gives a performance with poise and charm beyond his years. Paice eventually gets a chance to show more sides of her character than the distraught woman of the early scenes, and Jim Stanek radiates conviction as the hero of one of Elizabeth's stories. Angelina Kelly is fun as an outcast girl who befriends Danny, and Emily Skinner gives a warm-hearted performance as Danny's foster mother, trying her best to master parenthood with little practice, but they are still peripheral characters and their songs have little to do with the main plot.
Walt Spangler's scenic design uses abstract, free-standing metallic structures to continue the aviation theme, although they do give an austere, rigid look to the domestic scenes. Michael Clark's projections provide a more literal view of flight.