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By Paul Harris

Sept 4, 2008 — Shot down by critics in its maiden flight last year, the Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor tuner about a young boy’s discovery of his proud aviation roots has undergone an extensive overhaul.

The second sortie for “Ace” has hit the target. Shot down by critics in its maiden flight last year, the Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor tuner about a young boy’s discovery of his proud aviation roots has undergone an extensive overhaul, re-emerging as an immensely engaging show at Signature Theater, under the careful guidance of director Eric Schaeffer.
The musical bowed in January 2007 with high expectations, playing St. Louis, Cincinnati and San Diego. The story followed the travails of embittered 10-year-old Billy, shipped off to foster parents following his mother’s failed attempt at suicide. In vivid dreams, it’s revealed that his father and grandfather were both heroic fighter pilots shot down in the two world wars.

In the show’s new incarnation, Billy becomes Danny, a petulant youngster delightfully played by Dalton Harrod. The entire dream construct has been replaced by sequentially released missives such as scrapbooks and letters sent by the recovering mother to her son as tantalizing clues to the boy’s heritage — secrets she has mysteriously kept. The concept of the war widow’s repressed behavior was reportedly inspired by Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation.”

The script has been given a complete rewrite, with the addition of three numbers and the deletion of others. In all, more than 20 minutes were cut.

Contrived? You bet. Buying into this piecemeal fantasy requires a willingness to suspend logic and accept a broad array of archetypes fluttering about, from macho pilots to playground bullies, doting foster parents and a stern but compassionate social worker. But the payoff is a refreshingly innocent voyage that’s just right for these cynical times.

The strengths begin with a packed arsenal of delightful tunes topped by the robust “In These Skies,” the pilot’s paean to the wild blue. Oberacker’s score offers a satisfying mix of stirring ballads, tender love songs and quirky novelties, notably “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” an upbeat, jazzy act two number about women’s lib and journalistic ambition.

Lyrics for the most part are clever and illuminating. Once it dispenses with a somewhat overwrought prologue (containing plaintive phrases such as “Don’t divide us, please provide us”), the show catches fire with witty numbers like “Make It From Scratch,” about mishaps in the kitchen, and patriotic fervor in “December 7th.”

An assembly of terrific voices is led by the stirring soprano of Jill Paice as the distraught mother and budding bride Elizabeth. Christiane Noll, Florence Lacey and Emily Skinner help share the impressive load of 31 numbers, including reprises. Among the men, Jim Stanek as WWI pilot John Robert and Matthew Scott as his handsome son Ace bring impressive power to the big numbers.

But the real stars of “Ace” are the two spunky youngsters, Harrod and his acerbic pal Emily (Angelina Kelly), who beat the bullies at their own game and ride the fantasy to its satisfying conclusion. Harrod, on stage most of the night, delivers power and emotion on cue and clearly has a future in this business. Kelly is too cute for words as the nerdy sleuth and amateur psychologist. She knocks home runs with her two perky numbers, “Now I’m on Your Case” and “Sooner or Later.” The two strong perfs are a large part of making this show work.

Director Schaeffer wisely keeps the pedal down the entire night as the show races through time and space, while choreographer Karma Camp sparsely inserts dancing into the mix.

Walt Spangler’s metallic set is dominated by two sturdy and versatile structures that serve multiple duties as airplane cockpits and climbing spaces. The center floor elevates for use as the child’s bed and a dipping platform from which soaring pilots spread their wings. In keeping with the metallic theme, shades of gray dominate Robert Perdziola’s many costumes.