Jules Feiffer's Artistic Cri de Coeur in Sag Harbor
Dreams are the stuff of “The Man in the Ceiling,” a new musical by Andrew Lippa, from the book by Jules Feiffer, running now through June 25 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
A young boy named Jimmy loves to draw cartoons, spending hours in his room behind closed doors. The characters he creates are so vivid to him they come to life (literally) before him. But the outside world keeps intruding on his creativity, mostly in the form of his father, who wants Jimmy to play baseball and do better in school.
Only his mother seems to understand him, defending the talented Jimmy in one of the shows best numbers, “Like Your Son.” (“Though I know you truly love him / I wish you could like your son.”) There is also Uncle Lester, a would-be composer. Lester’s lack of success prompts Jimmy’s father to refer to him as “Mr. Floperoo,” though the uncle too does his best to encourage Jimmy in his dream of becoming an artist.
Obviously this material — which comes from a young-adult novel of the same name by Mr. Feiffer — doesn’t exactly break fresh ground. The “follow your dream” narrative has been well trodden by writers and musicians alike. But even if it isn’t new, it is given expert treatment by Mr. Lippa, whose music and lyrics are by turns hummable, humorous, and clever. Mr. Lippa’s credits include the scores for Broadway’s “The Addams Family” and for the stage adaptation of Tim Burton’s film “Big Fish,” among others, and his craft is on full display in “The Man in the Ceiling,” especially with the ballad “Disappear,” which chronicles a troubled marriage, and the rousing cri de coeur “I Do What I Do.”
It begins with David Korins’s striking set design, which includes a digital backdrop that lets us see Jimmy’s art with vivid color and imagery. And the cast is excellent, anchored by Jonah Broscow as Jimmy, Nicole Parker as his mother, and Mr. Lippa himself, who plays Uncle Lester with comic gusto.
In fact, it turns out that Uncle Lester is the most compelling character in the musical — the failed artist who pursues success even when there no longer seems a reason to believe. Lester’s answer to a world that doesn’t understand him is simple: “I do what I do / ’cause I like what I do / and I love my life this way.” Acute self-awareness, however — along with self-doubt — is never far behind. “Some call it magical / others self-deceiving.” Lester stands in as the artist who toils in obscurity, claiming that the work is its own reward. Secretly, though, he desperately craves approbation.
Lester is a more complex and interesting character than Jimmy, who, though he gives up drawing at his father’s behest, we know will ultimately not be kept from his art. It may be that Jimmy, too, works best as a symbol for all young people who balk against parental expectations. And his boarding himself in his room for hours while his father chides him to get outside for some sunshine will ring a bell for the many parents struggling against the allures of the digital age.
It is important to remind viewers that “The Man in the Ceiling” is new material; there is a moment or two during the first act in which the musical still seems raw. A thread of marital discord introduced in the first half is never fully resolved in the second, for example, and some viewers may find it sensible rather than Draconian that the father decides to curb Jimmy’s drawing when he brings home a horrific report card. One or two of the musical numbers in the first act lack the pop and snap of the others surrounding it, and the pace suffers as a result.
But the leaner second act seems polished to a diamond-like clarity. Everything clicks, and the songs become sharper and more penetrating. The ballad “Like Your Son” is an emotional showstopper, and the irresistible “Draw Your Own Conclusions” will have many viewers humming their way into the parking lot.
In one comic sequence, Uncle Lester, in the euphoria of having finally cast off his writer’s block, prepares an impromptu Tony Award acceptance speech.
Although “The Man in the Ceiling” needs some tightening before it is Broadway and Tony worthy, it is a highly entertaining piece of musical craft, composed by a top-flight talent.
I’m not sure of what the early stumblings of Mr. Lippa’s career might have been, but one thing is clear: His Uncle Lester days are far behind him.