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March 26, 2019

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‘Ace,’ an original musical, cleared for takeoff at UNLV

2014 Life Is Beautiful: Day 3

Steve Marcus

Richard Oberacker, conductor of Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” at MGM Grand, turns toward the audience after conducting members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic during Life Is Beautiful on Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, in downtown Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas, Richard Oberacker is known principally as the music director of the band in “Ka” at MGM Grand, among the most widely respected production ensembles in the city.

But Oberacker’s reach extends far beyond the Strip, and to use the metaphor of the moment, he is flying at high altitude.

Along with writing partner and, yes, co-pilot Robert Taylor, Oberacker is navigating the musical “Ace” during a two-day run at UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theater in August. The performances are scheduled for Aug. 22-23, with times set at 1 p.m. each day. The production is presented by Nevada Conservatory Theater, and the shows — and there are only the two — serve as a much-needed benefit for the NCT.

“We have two shots, and that’s it,” says Oberacker, who crafted the musical’s score and has navigated the musical’s development for nearly a decade. “This musical has already had a long journey just to get to this point.”

The musical is set in 1964 but travels back in time, centering on a young man who has discovered the unsettling reality of his mother’s hidden past. The plot covers three generations of “ace” fighter pilots through both world wars as the main character, Danny, is orphaned and eventually himself becomes a fighter pilot. The story charts his search for his mother, spanning decades, and is set to Oberacker’s original score.

Though a new production for Las Vegas audiences, “Ace” owns a history dating to its infancy in 2003, when Oberacker and Taylor (an expert violinist) first discussed the concept when both were touring with “Disney’s The Lion King.” The musical debuted at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis in fall 2006. In various forms, “Ace” also has been presented in the Old Globe in San Diego and Signature Theater of Arlington, Va.

“ ‘Ace’ had a pretty substantial life in 2006, in regional theaters, and drew some commercial interest,” Oberacker said during a recent phone interview. “Audiences loved it, but it was not ready for the stage. Rob and I wanted to fix much of what was being presented, but when you are in regional theater, you are on a tight schedule, and we had no time to make changes.”

Click to enlarge photo

Musical director Richard Oberacker.

So “Ace” went underground, performed only in a series of private readings in Las Vegas until, as Oberacker says, “We got the script we wanted.”

Finding a strong lead character was paramount, too. Oberacker found one in Sam Cordes, whom Oberacker discovered during the auditions for “Putnam County Spelling Bee” this spring, also at Judy Bayley Theater. “We need someone who can carry the entire show, and we found someone who can actually do this,” Oberacker says. “He is a serious actor.”

The cast is further stocked with talent. The title character, Ace, is played by Jordan Bondurant (currently portraying Sky in “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway). Joey DeBenedetto is John Robert (the first-generation fighter pilot). Tina Walsh, who originated the role of Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia!” at Mandalay Bay in 2002 and is on a break from playing Madame Giry in the Asian tour of “Phantom of the Opera,” plays Ruth, the family matriarch. Niki Scalera, from “Tarzan” on Broadway and “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood among many other stage credits, plays young Ruth (Walsh’s character as seen in flashbacks).

Among those performers, Cordes and Walsh rarely leave the stage. As Oberacker says, “They both carry this show on their backs.”

Musically, the production is buoyed by an orchestra that Oberacker says is “first rate, all major players in town,” which the local musicians’ union has allowed to donate services for this production. “It’s going to sound amazing.”

Also serious is the show’s creative team. The director is David H. Bell, an Olivier Award nominee for “The Hot Mikado” on London’s West End. Designer Brackley Frayer is chair of the Department of Theater at UNLV and NCT’s executive director. Artistic Director Christopher V. Edwards is a producer, director and actor who has taught theater arts at a series of universities, most recently the University of Minnesota. The sound designer is Jonathan Deans, whose vast list of credits includes his Tony-nominated work on “Pippin.” (Deans also dialed in the sound for the famed production at Andrea Wynn’s birthday party at Wynn Las Vegas that inspired “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” at Encore Theater.)

The full cast is yet to be announced, though members of NCT and even more recognizable performers from Las Vegas productions will be in the mix. The booking of “Ace” at Judy Bayley was largely inspired by the successful run of “The Last Five Years” in November. That production, also an NCT presentation, was a pet project of Smith Center for the Performing Arts benefactor and Las Vegas arts devotee Dr. Keith Boman.

As Oberacker notes in the news release announcing the performances: “I have always been a fan of theater institutions that find ways to integrate working professionals in the industry with students of the craft and those just beginning their professional journey.”

And in “Ace,” that journey is as high as the sky.

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