By Annette Hinkle
The dreams and aspirations of childhood are often the first casualties of growing up. Blame it on time and the process by which children become teenagers and teenagers become adults. Be it through peer pressure, altered expectations, or self-doubt, the result can be the derailment of dreams, and talents that once seemed to point to a future are dashed long before they can prosper and bloom.
The notion of staying true to one’s passions in the face of harsh reality is the central theme explored in “The Man in the Ceiling,” the world premiere musical which opened last weekend at Bay Street Theater and is the first production of its 2017 mainstage season.
“The Man in The Ceiling” takes audiences on a charming and magical romp through the fertile imagination of a sixth grade budding cartoonist, Jimmy Jibbett (played by Jonah Broscow), who faces external pressures from all sides that threaten his dream. Then he makes an unlikely alliance with an imaginary gure-esque figure who appears above his head in his room helping him learn to stay true to himself.
Jimmy may be the childhood embodiment of Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, author and playwright Jules Feiffer, whose young adult novel of the same name provided the source material for the play.
Feiffer wrote the book for this musical, and he represents one third of a creative powerhouse in “The Man in the Ceiling,” which began life as a staged reading at Bay Street a little over a year ago. Joining him on the team is Tony-nominated composer Andrew Lippa, who provides the music and lyrics for the show (and also acts in it), and director Jeffrey Seller, the Tony-award winning producer of “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.”
With a team like that, it’s hard to go wrong, and rest assured, this is a polished piece of theater with solid acting, a terrific score and tons of creativity, thanks to an enthusiastic and talented cast and crew.
The core of the story centers on Jimmy, who wiles away the hours drawing superheroes when he should be focused on school work. Father (played by Danny Binstock) can’t disguise his disappointment with his non-athletic, non-academic son. He admonishes Jimmy to study more and draw less while he tosses baseballs in the backyard with the neighbor’s son, Charlie Beemer (Brett Gray), who is everything Jimmy is not.
Meanwhile, Mother (Nicole Parker) is so busy with her career she doesn’t have time to deal with the dynamics within her own family and prefers to ignore confrontations when uncomfortable subjects arise. Also in Jimmy’s life is his sister, Lisi (Erin Kommor) who appreciates his talents, but pesters him non-stop to be the subject of his next portrait, and his Uncle Lester, played by Andrew Lippa in a self-reflective role as the struggling composer, who locks himself in the attic as he tries to write the perfect Broadway love song to please his backers.
Jimmy and Uncle Lester are kindred spirits in the household — two dreamers in a world filled with pragmatists. Also represented in the show are several secondary characters — superheroes, in fact, brought to life through creative stick puppets designed by Rick Lyon (who designed the puppets for “Avenue Q”) and Feiffer. Modeled on Jimmy’s superhero drawings, they are quirky and silly with moving mouths that allow them to speak. Throughout the play, each of the people in Jimmy’s life take on the role of puppet master and talk to Jimmy through the various characters he has created.
But Jimmy, it turns out, has what he believes to be a fatal flaw in his artistic ability. As self-doubt takes hold, Father’s message of tossing aside childhood whims for adult responsibility hits home and Jimmy begins to reject his drawings — until a giant puppet (aka “The Man in the Ceiling”) appears to give him the confidence to listen to his heart.
It’s a simple enough storyline and this cast works together incredibly well in the telling of the tale. Despite his young age, Broscow is strongly confident in the role of Jimmy. As the center of attention, he does much of the heavy lifting with great energy and a terrific singing voice. Also particularly loveable is Lippa’s Uncle Lester. Lippa may be a composer by trade, but he certainly understands what it take to be a good comic actor. As Jimmy’s energetic sister, Kommor is also great fun to watch as well. Choreography in the show is tight and Seller’s direction is spot on.
The music in this production is also uplifting and inspiring, particularly in Act II which has some of the best numbers in the show, including the heartfelt “I Do What I Do” by Uncle Lester and the catchy number “You Are the Friend.”
The production design is fabulously creative and David Korins sloped set is shaped like several giant pieces of paper torn out of a notebook. The set is one giant cartoon drawing and Howell Binkley’s lighting and projections designed by Daniel Brodie and Jules Feiffer allow for colorful illustrations, words and effects to be projected in brilliant hues onto the oversize pages.
While this lighthearted musical evokes the passion of childhood and is a great show for families with children, there is a trade off in that adult audiences might find the plot falls short of what it could be. Ultimately what’s missing here is the real gravitas necessary to make the adults in the play become fully realized characters.
The lack of complexity in their development leaves the supporting roles nearly as one dimensional as Jimmy Jibbett’s cartoons. We learn very little about what makes them tick and the superficial focus on sports and school rings hollow. It would be much more satisfying if there was a family dynamic that dealt with issues of far greater depth and importance, and it would make Jimmy’s escape into his innocent pastime all the more endearing.
There is also a missed opportunity here to build complexity by endowing each of the stick puppets with a personality trait (or better yet, flaw) that embodies the relationship between Jimmy and the corresponding cast member who operates each puppet. Jimmy’s superheroes are so vibrant, it would be great to experience them as cartoon manifestations of the deeper-seated hopes and fears of those around him. It would also provide an opportunity to build on the innate insecurities and problems that adults tend to shoulder, while attempting to shield their children, who nevertheless instinctively know when something’s wrong.
In the end, this is still a fabulously fun production and one that is appropriate and enjoyable for all ages. And the truth is, you don’t really have to grow up if you don’t want to.
“The Man in the Ceiling” runs through June 25 at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. For tickets call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.