If You Give a Director a Cookie

Or rather, if you give a director a huge budget…

Saw Ace the other night at Signature. It’s advertised as a story about planes and war and WWI flying aces and stuff. About 20 minutes into the show I was thinking, “Either we came to the wrong theatre or this sure is a huge frame they’ve put this story in.” It seemed to be set in the 50s, and didn’t have much to do with flying. Well, except the set, which was all metal and riveted, with two enormous metal contraptions on either side of the stage, all set about with doors and lights and flapdoodles.

Turns out it’s really a story of a boy learning about his past. And said past does have not one, but two flying aces in it. And sure, all that the setup is more or less necessary to build up empathy for the characters, but it musta coulda been done quicker. As the story went on, it got much better. The songs tended somewhat toward the insipid, but the book (with the exception of the part where Ace pulled up and flew up to heaven or something) was really very good. Oddly, the book was written by the lyricist and composer. Perhaps I’m just spoiled; not everyone can be Sondheim when it comes to words. Maybe you have to be Joss Whedon (or a close relation) to do that.

So anyway, the show was really quite good, and the performances even better. Angelina Kelly (hah! I remembered her name), the female kid, has a strong note of Alyson Hannigan about her (except for, y’know, all those strong notes — Aly doesn’t sing). I expect to see a lot more of her in the future. The set, however…

I think I’m starting to long for the days of the garage, when the shows were simpler. This set was designed by Walt Spangler, who also did Signature’s Witches of Eastwick. Which had a 20′ tall moon that randomly moved back and forth on the stage all night (because it can!!!), much to my amusement.

So this show, whaddya think? First number about flying, a diamond-shaped platform in the center of the stage rises up, with the singer on it, and dry ice fog pours out underneath. Cool! Clouds, flying. Excellent. Then the platform tilts forward about 30 degrees, with three small sections staying level to stand on. Ooh, that’s nice. Then it tips back level for the next verse. Aaaand… tips forward again for the next chorus. Jenna and I had the same thought: the moon is square tonight. It’s flopping back and forth because they spent a fortune on that thing and by god they’re gonna get their money’s worth!

But even that silliness paled in comparison to the two side-stage edifices when they started moving. Oh yes, they not only rotated to show the back side, they moved and scooted and rumbled around on the stage like two aluminum giants doing the Galley-oh-hoop-hoop dance. Oh yeah, that helped me stay in the moment.

Note to Eric Schaeffer: Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it. Note to self: if invited to a PowerPoint presentation by Eric, stay far far away.

Y’know, hydraulics is fine. Gimmicks is even fine, if you understand the difference between “funny once” and “funny always”. But making the whole stage come to life is always going to be part of the show, whether you intend it or not. Somehow I don’t think that’s what he wanted here. Not meaning to pick on Eric; the direction was spectacular as far as the performances went (loved how the adults focused on the letters and diaries, while young Danny watched the action taking place in the past). But that just makes the overproduction of the set even more annoying.

Also, the sound board op was on some other planet. But it was preview week, so okay. Oh, and red lights port and starboard? Sheesh. And Jenna is still annoyed that the letter being simultaneously read on both sides of the sea was on different paper. But again, maybe that’s a preview gaffe.

Well, at least they have the smaller ARK space, where they can’t get all Broadway-flash on us. And as long as they keep bringing us stuff like The Word Begins, I’ll keep subscribing.

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