There’s a lot of struggling in the messy musical adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s delightful young adult novel, premiering at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater in this summer enclave on Long Island. Twelve-year-old Jimmy (Jonah Broscow) is obsessed with being a cartoonist — but he can’t draw hands no matter how hard he tries. His beloved Uncle Lester (Andrew Lippa, also the show’s composer), who lives with Jimmy’s family, yearns to be a Broadway composer — but he can’t write a love song. But the show’s creators also struggle, as they decide what the show should be: a thin cartoon or something that is, like the book, more dimensional.
Send in the cartoons. Under the confusing and often clunky direction of Jeffrey Seller (the lead producer of “Hamilton”), the result is a shrill, sentimental, repetitive and obvious sketch of a show. Though the script is by Feiffer, the musical lacks the original material’s sly humor, off-beat charm and gentle heart.
Jimmy’s talent for drawing — nicely presented with projections by Daniel Brodie and Feiffer — is not appreciated by his dad (Danny Binstock) who wishes he had a son more interested in sports than wasting his time creating superheroes. But Jimmy has his supporters: His mother (Nicole Parker) is more understanding even if she’s a bit of a ditz; his sister Lisa (Erin Kommer) appreciates her brother’s talent but can’t help from being annoying; and Charlie (Brett Gray), an older boy he idolizes, wants to use Jimmy to illustrate Charlie’s violence-filled imaginings.
Jimmy is also surrounded by his past cartoon creations (played by actors who are ineffectively double-cast) who urge him to stay the course with his own talent and imagination. But they’re never developed or well-defined. Ditto for the real-life folks, especially mom and dad whose characters are so thinly drawn they’re hardly there.
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Their relationship isn’t the only head-scratcher. A new cartoon creation from Jimmy’s imagination — the title character (who emerges differently than in the book) is integrated bizarrely into the narrative, but has something to do with the ancient Incas. The craftsmanship of musical-making overall is in short supply here, typified by the show’s ending, which is telegraphed in the broadest strokes and presented with little elegance, robbing the moment of its sweet surprise.
Lippa’s music is often pleasant, with “Hands,” “I Do What I Do” and “You Are The Friend” the best tunes. But others fail to make any mark, with the superheroes receiving far too much song-and-dance time for little purpose. Spencer Liff’s ever-circling choreography, too, is more dizzying than dazzling.
More importantly, key musical moments are missing. The relationship that’s at the heart of the show — between Jimmy and his uncle — is not given the chance to shine or sing. Lippa’s performance, too, is stylistic and removed, especially in the singing, which has an odd archness to it.
He’s not alone. Most of the other performances make the cartoons they’re based on seem subtle by comparison. Broscow, whose job is to carry the show, is wide-eyed, likable and has considerable stage presence. But to make this show move forward, it calls for more than a skillful kid. It calls for going back to the drawing board.