A family-friendly magical realism musical involving the son of a 1910s Broadway singer, who, following the collapse of her marriage, takes him and flees to a Midwest tent vaudeville show, called the Astrolabe Theater Company. He discovers there is much more to this theater than first appears. Its cast exists in a realm of limbo, where lost and broken souls go to help each other find redemption, heal, and go on to fulfill their dreams. He begins to understand the reality of the lives around him, especially that of a boy who befriends him, challenging him to see beyond preconceived ideas regarding others and himself.
After the prologue featuring Heloise and Peter, the big opening number is called Time to make Time, during which the tent Is erected on stage, and Alex, who barks up the show, cries out, “We Are Astrolabe!”
Broadway singer Margery Foster arrives with her son Lincoln at a Midwest traveling tent show called Astrolabe to figure her life out after a separation from her husband. Their son Lincoln wants to be like Mom and Dad, but Margery doesn’t want him in showbiz and pushes him to be a lawyer like her father. The kid is miserable. Mom is miserable. Lincoln sings his “I want “song called Theater Kid.
The show’s musical comedian Charley hears him sing and tells him of the Astrolabe’s secret and of his quandary in the song I Don’t Know What it is That Isn’t There. After the two dance a soft shoe together, they exit the tent, but Lincoln’s shadow stays behind.
The house lights come up next. Alex, the popcorn vendor, comes through the audience selling little greasy brown paper popcorn bags for five cents with lots of fun banter and promising a diamond pin in one bag. (It’s a dime with a hole drilled in it pierced with a safety pin)
We witness the turn of the century Vaudeville show, starting with the Dragoons marching in through the audience playing Sousa marches, which gives way to fast-paced comedy banter and a humorous tribute Sousa is so USA. An Abe Lincoln Impersonator is up next but loses his pant button during a recitation of the Gettysburg address and blames Alex for the mishap. Lincoln hides Alex in a trunk, not knowing it is a prop for the next bit, a Musical Dancing Magic act By Madam Ravin, the only black cast member. As she launches into Magic in my Life Lincoln and Alex get trapped on stage in the middle of it, and Lincoln ends up in the show.
Margery sings a song with lyrics by the victorian poet Cristina Rossetti called The Hope Carol next, then Oliver, her estranged husband, shows up backstage, saying he has come to take Lincoln away from his mother and back to New York with him, and Lincoln, upset at his parents arguing, runs away. Alex sets off to find and bring him back, vowing to help his new friend.
Back on stage, the show continues with a rotating guest act, then concludes with The Obligatory Big Time Dance Bit, inspired by the Nicholas Brothers’ incredible tap routines. Just at the end, as the curtain goes down, Alex shows up at the dark corner of the stage and sings for the first time in the play, a short song called In The Dark, referencing it as the place where he hides.
Alex finds Lincoln singing a sad song called Broken, admitting to the emotional abuse from his father, during which Alex finds and joins him with his own verse of hope for his friend. Charley and Roberta and George all find them both and hatch a plan to help Lincoln’s Mom admit her son’s talents and dreams. They plot to slip one of Lincoln’s songs into the show for Margery to sing without knowing who wrote it. Lincoln would come on stage singing harmony with his mother, who would then realize she was singing his song along with him. This would break through her defenses and allow her to accept her son’s dreams.
Lincoln presents his song and plan to Heloise and Peter, who agrees to try it and deliver the song to Heloise, after which Charley steps forward to admit his part in the plan, and his motivation and to say that, inspired by the boys, he now realizes that what his life is missing is family, and will be leaving the show to go home to St. Joseph and settle down after that night’s performance.
Margery is in the tent singing an extended reprise of In The Dark after which she sees a shadow of a long-dead girl from her childhood, (cast by George, who we can see, but she cannot), but can’t dwell on because Peter, Heloise, and Charley deliver the song and convince her she needs to sing it that night.
Each act that evening incorporates the boys, in order for Margery to see the extent of her son’s desires, starting with Madam Ravin. She educates Lincoln on what it’s like to be a black Entertainer with her song Silly Me, which transforms into the stage version called Clever Me, where the three of them end up dancing in a kickline that materializes out of thin air.
Next, they appear as Tom and Huck sand-dancing with George as Mark Twain to a banjo orchestra, in a number called If Ever the Twain You Should Meet, immediately followed by a big singalong number called Were all okay. Okay? Then, during yet another frantic costume change for his mother’s act, Lincoln discovers his friend Alex’s secret, that he is a transgender boy. Lincoln must take that moment to choose between carrying out his plan to win his mother’s approval or risking it all and staying backstage and showing his friend that he accepts him as is. Lincoln chooses friendship over ambition and vows to stick with Alex. Still in shock, Alex believes it’s not too late and pushes Lincoln on stage.
As Lincoln sings his song A Joyful Heart with his mother, she is floored when she realizes her son’s genuine passion and talents, and his message to her written in the song’s lyrics, which in her unhappiness, she refused to acknowledge. Alex joins them in dancing a soulful ballet and adds his voice as a trio.
Oliver confronts them afterwords to take Lincoln back to NYC, but Margery convinces him to let Lincoln choose. Oliver tries to lure his son back with his dream of being on Broadway. For Lincoln, it means taking sides with Dad, who cheated on and left Mom and lied to him. Feeling understood by his mother now, Lincoln turns down his father’s offer of stardom to stay in relative obscurity with her and his new friend after realizing his absolute joy is in those he cares for.
After Charley says his goodbyes, Alex decides he has to risk it all and tells Margery his secret. Margery realizes the shadow she saw was of her transgender childhood girlfriend who died tragically and says she accepts Alex for who he is and vows to do what she was unable to do as a child, to protect and be the family Alex needs along with Lincoln. At first, Alex is skeptical of the offer, but Lincoln sings Alex’s verse of hope from the song Broken back to him and says “Your home, brother.” after which Alex finally lets his defenses go along with all the emotions he has been bottling up. Symbolically, the walls of the tent drop to reveal that the entire theater becomes a star-filled universe. George gives a Shakespearian-like epilogue to the audience as the cast reprises Time to Make Time. and hoists Alex up above them, where he cries out in a broken voice “We Are Astrolabe!”