At the spine of this tale within a tale (within a tale), which is the opening production of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' 40th season, a paternal apparition named Ace arrives to comfort Billy (Noah Galvin), an unsure ten-year-old whose mother has attempted suicide. Ace (performed with sure presence by Matt Bogart), a charismatic aviator, shares his love of flying with Billy. Together they time-travel into the past. Late in Act One we're in France fighting World War I.
This is a dreamscape in which the pilots tend to not look at each other; they're too busy reading letters from loved ones across the foam or flying into combat and there's no one to look at when you're alone in the sky. Suddenly hag-like women appear, singing Lord only knows what and throwing an already multi-tiered story into utter confusion.
Their presence was superfluous enough early on when the trio pretended to be the lovely Boylan Sisters, radio-performing refugees from Annie who here find themselves singing into a KMOX microphone one of the sops the show lobs in to have us believe that the core of the plot is set in St. Louis, when in fact St. Louis has no relevance to anything that occurs onstage. (Why are men working on the Gateway Arch in 1952? They sure aren't building it; construction didn't start till 1963.)
At least the KMOX trio is a mere appendage, stuck offstage left to fill up space (as if filling up space is a worthy substitute for filling out characters). But the chanteuses take center stage. Are they a dream within a dream? Are they entertainers? Camp-following hookers? I haven't a clue. All I know for sure is that by this point in the evening, Ace is relentlessly overloaded beyond tolerance.
For a musical that is striving so hard to be unique, Ace is uncomfortably derivative. Do you like old movies? You might recognize snatches from A Guy Named Joe and The Princess Bride. Our precocious ingénue is straight from Harry Potter. The evening's ambitions are beholden to Caroline, or Change, but its execution is influenced by Ragtime, and one of the more stirring musical numbers owes a lot more than a little to "Into the Fire" from The Scarlet Pimpernel.
It's always difficult to judge new music on a first hearing. Perhaps this pastiche of a score by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor is filled with memorable tunes that in time will soar into the Great American Musical Songbook. But what I carried from the performance was less melody and more loudness. One song was so high-decibel that Heather Ayers (as a St. Louis debutante) had to shout rather than sing.
Every time someone repeats the lofty refrain "In these skies I am free," lots of synthesizer trills let us know our emotions are supposed to have been touched. But before emotions can be stirred, you have to care about the characters. Not to be ungenerous here, but it's a high-risk gamble to place the burden of your narrative on a ten-year-old who might not yet be adept at conveying depth and range. Even if a viewer wants to get involved, the through-line is so chopped up that it's hard to know where to focus one's energies. Do they go to the well-intentioned foster parents who dominate Act One, then essentially vanish? To Billy's suicidal mother, who wanders in and out through the front half of the evening to no apparent purpose? To Ace himself, who must be important because he's the title character but who also seems shortchanged in the early going? And as long as questions are being asked, here's one more: When the evening is over, what has been resolved?
Ace is a collaboration of young alumni of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, maybe the most impressive musical theater school in the nation, so surely a lot of talent went into its creation. Although the Rep is billing the work as a world premiere, in effect we're the out-of-town tryout where the kinks are to be attended to so these CCM alums can return to Cincy in triumph when the show opens there next month (in what is being billed as another "world premiere").
They'll get their triumphant reception. But if they expect Ace to fly beyond Cincinnati, this creative team is going to have a very busy September in St. Louis.