Richard Oberacker, a theatrical composer with local roots (Anderson High School and UC's College-Conservatory of Music), writes in the program for Ace, currently onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse, that he and his creative partner Robert Taylor wanted "to write something that returned to the traditions of the great American musicals of the so-called 'Golden Age of Broadway,' shows that had sweep and scope, told uniquely American stories and spoke to a multi-generational audience." That's an apt description of the result, and without a doubt they've achieved what they wanted to do.
The central character, 10-year-old Billy Lucas (Noah Galvin), grows up in the 1950s, but we meet his parents and his grandparents, so the show covers three generations and two world wars. The hopes and aspirations of all, in addition to the desperation brought on by war, poverty, love and human tragedy, thread through their stories. Billy is an only child who's desperately lonely; his single mother has suffered a nervous breakdown, and he ends up with caring but clumsy foster parents Edward (played earnestly by Duke Lafoon) and Louise (comically nervous Amy Bodnar, especially in a scene of disastrous baking, "Make It From Scratch").
Edward provides the catalyst for Billy's awakening with the gift of a model airplane that triggers dreams in which, like Scrooge and his ghosts, he visits the past to enlighten his current life.
Suffused with metaphors of flight -- Billy's grandfather is a World War I flying ace, his father a World War II "Flying Tiger" -- Ace becomes a metaphorically unified lesson about aspiration and confidence.
This is admirably supported by David Korins' scenic design -- multi-leveled platforms that recall the struts and guy wires of biplanes against a sky of clouds (and eventually twinkling stars) -- plus sounds of buzzing aircraft (designed by John H. Shivers and David Partridge) and lighting (Christopher Akerlind) which make aerial dogfights seem vividly real. Those scenes are imaginatively staged by director Stafford Arima with choreography by Andrew Palermo: The pilots are arrayed around the stage in "formations," moving in consort with one another like a squadron of aircraft. Although the only planes we see are two small models, you'll feel you've experienced combat in the sky as heart-thumping and believable as any movie re-creation.
Ace is held together by child actor Noah Galvin's astounding performance. Because much of the action is in Billy's imagination and dreams, Galvin never leaves the stage. That's a big burden for someone who's voice hasn't changed yet, but he's up to the task. The audience cheered when he stood up to a pair of bullies, and when he shows his first sign of self-confidence, with a smirk and his hands on his hips, telling his young friend Emily (precociously played by Gabrielle Boyadjian), "Call me Ace," you know Billy's going to be OK.
That's my singular reservation about Ace: There's not much mystery. Before intermission I saw where the story was going, so it became less about revealing startling information than seeing how things would play out. That's not altogether bad -- a certain amount of predictability is expected in musicals -- but it gave the characters less dimension. Nevertheless, Matt Bogart is admirably stalwart as Ace, Billy's nighttime tour guide (his relationship, which I won't give away, but is too soon obvious) and Jessica Boevers plays Billy's mother with wan, disconnected despair in Act I and joyous assertiveness as a younger woman in Act II, singing the hopeful "It's Just a Matter of Time" and the angry "That's What It Should Say." Backing up one generation, Chris Peluso has excellent breathless energy for John Robert, a guy at the dawn of flight, and Heather Ayers takes on the more uneven part of Ruth, his over-the-moon lover who evolves into Ace's domineering mother.
Being able to anticipate the outcome doesn't diminish much the pleasure of watching Ace: It's a flight of fantasy that audiences will enjoy. Grade: A-
ACE, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 17.