SAG HARBOR, N.Y. — Lots of family-friendly musicals don’t aim very high; they rely on lightweight songs and simple storytelling that any kid could grasp. “The Man in the Ceiling,” a new work with some impressive names behind it that is receiving its premiere at the intrepid Bay Street Theater here, wants to be more challenging. This is a show best suited to children born with the theater-nerd gene and to parents curious to see how the source material, Jules Feiffer’s 1993 book, translates to the stage.
Mr. Feiffer himself did the adaptation, and Andrew Lippa, whose previous musicals include “The Wild Party” and “The Addams Family,” wrote the music and lyrics for this story about a sixth grader, Jimmy (Jonah Broscow), who likes to draw. Jimmy’s father (Danny Binstock) would rather he play baseball, the central tension in the piece. Also on hand are a sympathetic mother (Nicole Parker) and sister (Erin Kommor), as well as a fair-weather friend named Charley (Brett Gray) who mostly just wants to exploit Jimmy’s artistic ability.
The comic relief comes via Jimmy’s Uncle Lester, amusingly played by Mr. Lippa. Lester is an unsuccessful composer of musicals in the grip of a sort of writer’s block: He can’t seem to come up with a decent love song. This is a side plot that only a theater wonk could love; one song that springs from it, an Act II number called “Mr. Floperoo,” would make a pretty good opening number for a Tony Awards broadcast.
Amid this already busy hodgepodge, Jimmy’s cartoon characters (embodied by the five other cast members via poster-board puppets) sometimes come to life. Oh, and there’s that title character. He’s a sort of Godlike apparition who briefly appears to Jimmy and somehow brings him clarity, though considering that the show is named for him he actually gets very little stage time and isn’t very well explained.
Most of the high points of this show are musical, with Mr. Lippa providing a sublime Act I duet, “Disappear,” for Ms. Parker and Mr. Binstock. (It’s about marital noncommunication; this couple has some issues, another side plot.) And Ms. Parker gets another chance to showcase a lovely voice in an Act II song called “Like Your Son,” directed at the father, a clueless sort who tends to say discouraging things to Jimmy like, “Creativity’s inappropriate at the dinner table.”
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