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The Man in the Ceiling
Reviews by Rob Lester


Ghostlight Records
CD | mp3 | iTunes

One of the more famous pieces of advice given to creatives has been: "Write what you know." And that logically leads to a new musical about a cartoonist, based on a novel by a cartoonist, Jules Feiffer. That artist, long an established playwright on his own, provided the spoken sections for this show, which retains the original novel's title, The Man in the Ceiling. Andrew Lippa contributed the music and lyrics, including amusing material for a character who writes—you guessed it—music and lyrics. And he sings the role himself, the only member of a (Sag Harbor, New York) 2017 mounting's cast to recreate a role for this first recording of the agreeable score. The cartoonist in this family show about a family is Jimmy, a 12-year-old who's much in need of more attention, praise, and real support from mom, dad, sister, or the live-in uncle played with frenzied relish by Lippa. Beyond the kinfolk, there's a neighbor boy and characters Jimmy imagines and draws, voiced by the same castmates.

Frustration, worry and self-absorption fuel some of what's often going on, and this results in a soundscape that can be dissonant, as well as numerous busily, boisterous contrapuntal segments. As our striving adolescent hero, Grady Miranda performs admirably, with convincing longing, gusto and vexation; when fraught, there can be a keening quality which is common to kids' voices. Such can be the price of catharsis. In listening, I found his performance engendering sympathy for Jimmy's thwarted struggles for acceptance and understanding. Less can be more, and his calmer, reflective "Maybe He Likes Me" is poignant in his hands. His hand-wringing over his problem of having trouble drawing "Hands" gets similar weight as a matter of concern, but becomes explosive in the belting of the repeated title word. A key part of the family interaction is the father not connecting to this artistic boy who isn't the jock or scholar he'd hoped his son would be. Singing the role of that parent, Broadway veteran Gavin Creel offers sufficient vulnerability and restraint so as not to be merely an unfeeling oaf. And the songs provided for him go a long way to avoid that stereotyped image.

The invaluable warmth factor comes courtesy of the thoughtful interpretations and radiant voice of ideally cast Kate Baldwin. As in cast album appearances on two other Lippa scores, Big Fish and John & Jen (lyrics and book by Tom Greenwald), in addition to her other work, she conveys layered and loving feelings. This is best evidenced in "Like Your Son," which could have been merely an admonishment and indictment of her husband's poorer parenting perspective. Instead, her well-calibrated emphases on crucial words in this solo is laced with underlying concern, as she wills the father to open his eyes and heart. (And she will probably have already have won your heart with earlier songs etching her dilemmas and doubts about marriage, motherhood, and career.)

The roles of neighbor and sister (John-Michael Lyles and Ashley Park, respectively) feel more plot-functional than independently intriguing, but are solidly effective on these terms as heard here. Last but not at all least, Andrew Lippa the songwriter gives Andrew Lippa the entertaining singing actor some of the juiciest stuff and he pounces on the plum role. As the obsessive but stymied songwriter, there's splashing, thrashing, and crashing and burning through maddening writer's block ("Where Is My Love Song") and self-pitying pessimism (accepting the self-designated tag of "Mr. Floperoo"). Elsewhere, an uber-zippy group number that's a gleeful valentine "To the Gods" of musical theatre is a giddy romp likely, like these other two treats, to tickle the fancy of those who "get" the genre. (I'm looking at you, dear reader/target audience.)

While some might want more depth and development, The Man in the Ceiling is an unpretentious, forgiving portrait of family dynamics and dysfunction, ultimately advocating for nurturing the creative spirit and following one's passion. And that's a message well worth hearing and cheering.

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