San Diego One of the unwritten rules of theater: never let the audience get ahead of the story. If they can anticipate where you're going, you've lost them. Coughing bouts break out. Programs crackle. Chins nestle on the palms of hands. Although the Old Globe's musical Ace tries to corral you into the moment with one epic emotion after another, you can see what's coming long in advance.
Ace tells two stories. But they're the same story told twice: young intrepid lad falls in love with flying and with a woman, at the same time. She becomes pregnant. He goes off to World War I. He gets shot down. Dies. A son grows up fatherless. Learns to love planes. Falls in love with a woman. She becomes pregnant. He goes off to World War II.
Ace is set in St. Louis, 1952, where a third fatherless son, ten-year-old Billy, must go to a foster home because his mother, for vague mental stability reasons, isn't working out. His parents, clones of June and Ward Cleaver, try but fail to win his love. Then at night, as Billy rubs a model P40 Flying Tiger plane, a World War II ace takes him back in time on "the traveling thing." Act One tells the story of John Robert, WWI pilot shot down in combat; Act Two tells the story of his son, Ace, a WWII pilot, shot down in combat, who, it turns out is -- three guesses. Or are you way ahead of me?
Families torn apart, parentless children, deaths before their time: these are life-changing, even life-shattering, events. The musical's sketchy plot, however, never takes them beyond the generic. Ace manipulates events for easily earned emotions. One-dimensional characters stand for a feeling or a problem, and little more: one mom's depressed, another's controlling, another's inept (women don't fare very well in the musical, come to think of it); the ace pilots gaze heroically at the heavens and sing soaring songs of conquest.
Or song, actually, since they all sound practically the same. Richard Oberacker's music rages to uplift. Notes and phrases always ascend, as if to imitate flight, and sometimes out of a singer's range. If the musical had just one song like this -- "I Know It Can Be Done," belted with Power of Positive Thinking conviction by Darren Ritchie, for example -- it would be stirring. You'd leave the theater determined to honor all of your New Year's resolutions. But every song rockets into the upper registers at full volume -- determined to move you. The result, by Act Two, is auditory overload so pummeling you may not notice that, in the end, Ace has resolved almost every contradiction in the known universe.
In the midst of the din, and possibly because he's doing the opposite, Noah Galvin gives a mesmerizing performance. As young Billy, Galvin doesn't seem to be acting. It's as if, instead of time traveling, the real Billy rubbed the Flying Tiger model and ended up on the Globe stage instead. Ace tries to engulf the audience. Galvin brings them in, with subtle facial expressions and minimal body language. Billy is genuinely confused and hurt. Galvin's performance almost makes the musical worth seeing.
For the '80s and '90s, Broadway musicals had a calling card: the Big Effect -- be it a falling chandelier or hovering helicopter. For a musical about flying, you'd expect not necessarily Baron von Richthofen swooping down in his red triplane with the sun at his back, but at least a vivid, theatrical representation of flight. David Korins's set has a two-tier platform, rearstage, that resembles the wings of a biplane. But when the pilots take to the skies, director Stafford Arima and choreographer Andrew Palermo ground them with unimaginative miming: running in circles, crouching and turning, pumping their hands for machine guns -- like kids playing in the back yard.
Everyone involved with this project should take a walk from the Globe across Balboa Park to the Aerospace Museum. Once inside, they should look up and meditate on the machines -- many originating in San Diego -- people used to fly. There's more awe in the sight of John J. Montgomery's fragile Evergreen glider than in all of Ace put together.
To stage Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 novella about transformation, Heart of a Dog, UCSD director Charlie Oates turned the Mandell Weiss Forum theater around: the audience sits on the stage; actors perform onstage and in the house. Chase scenes down the aisles, and pratfalls far and near, are a hoot. As is Frank Galati's adaptation.
Professor Preobrajensky's a urologist who specializes in "rejuvenation" -- improving the sex lives of his clientele, the fading bourgeoisie in revolutionary Russia, with implants (not all are successful, however, as the man with green hair attests). What if, he speculates, he could "hypophysic" a dog into a human? He tries, transplanting the pituitary gland and testicles of a man into a scraggly mutt. But, the professor and his aides are quick to learn, the human subject was a "filthy scum," stabbed to death in a barroom brawl, with the "vilest human heart you could find." After the dog learns to walk and speak -- his first word is "saloon" -- he becomes not just a mega-jerk but a candidate for public officialdom (the USSR refused to publish Heart of a Dog when it came out; it's a wonder they didn't "disappear" Bulgakov, given his bitter counterrevolutionary critique).
Sharp ensemble acting frames the performances of Brandon Taylor, as the snobbish Preobrajensky, a Dr. Joseph Mengele avant la lettre, and Ryan Shams as the dog/man Sharik, one of the grimiest, grossest, and funniest creations in recent memory.