Theater Review: ‘Pamela’s First Musical”

September 25, 2018
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David Garrison as the producer Bernie S. Gerry, Sarah McKinley Austin as Pamela and Carolee Carmello as Aunt Louise in “Pamela’s First Musical” at Two River Theater. Photo courtesy T. Charles Erickson

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |

If you were that kid using a hairbrush as a microphone, alone in your bedroom, singing show tunes you learned by listening to your mom’s old Broadway albums, do I have a show for you.

The world premiere of “Pamela’s First Musical” at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Oct. 7, is billed as a valentine to Broadway. It’s that, and much more, including an unexpected moral to the story. Well, maybe not if you know Wendy Wasserstein’s work (“The Sisters Rosensweig,” “The Heidi Chronicles”).

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s 1996 children’s book of the same name, Wasserstein collaborated on a stage production with music by Cy Coleman (“The Will Rogers Follies,” “City of Angels,” “On the Twentieth Century,” “Sweet Charity”) and lyrics by David Zippel (“City of Angels”). It’s had a few fits and starts, but a fully-staged production never materialized after Coleman, then Wasserstein, became ill and died (2004 and 2006, respectively).

Howard McGillin as Nathan Hines Kline and Andréa Burns as Mary Ethel Bernadette, the musi- cal comedy stars who perform in the show-within-a-show. Photo courtesy Charles T. Erickson

The current production obviously has its sights on a robust future, perhaps even Broadway if it follows in the footsteps of “Be More Chill,” another Two River Theater musical that made its world premiere here and opens there in February.

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Directed and choreographed by American Theater Hall of Famer and 10-time Tony nominee Graciela Daniele (who has previously been associated with the show), plus additional work on the book by Tony Award-winner Christopher Durang (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”) it’s a great introduction to how the theater works to create a live musical performance, plus plenty of references and nuances to keep adults and musical theater lovers entertained. The 90-minute, no-intermission show would challenge very young children.

Sarah McKinley Austin was born to play the part of the precocious 11-year-old Pamela, whose mother has died and whose father (two-time Tony Award-nominee Howard McGillin) is increasingly frustrated as to how to handle his unusual daughter.

Enter colorful, vivacious Aunt Louise (three-time Tony Award-nominee Carolee Carmello) who decides it’s time for Pamela to explore New York City and see a Broadway show. And since Aunt Louise is friends with theater producer Bernie S. Gerry (Tony Award-nominee David Garrison) Pamela gets the royal treatment with a backstage tour and the best seats in the house.

She also meets musical comedy star Mary Ethel Bernadette (Drama Desk Award-winner Andréa Burns) and director Hal Hitner (Tony Award-nominee Michael Mulheren).

There’s even a musical-within-a-musical, a reimagining of “The Sound of Music” featuring Captain von Trapezoid played by McGillin, whom Pamela says reminds her of her father – another character he plays. It may confuse younger audience members, but it hits the marks as a sendup of plot devices.

And speaking of playing multiple roles, a big round of applause for the ensemble that played a cast of thousands: Wesley J. Barnes (Daniel/Jules Gels/Linzer Torte/Others), Jeanine Bruen (Ensemble), Mary Callanan (Tiny La Tuna/Messenger/Gladys/Others), Nick Cearley (Robert/Harrison Roy/Others), Erica Dorfler (Lyndell/Betty Songheim/Countess), Hillary Fisher (Jessica/Heidi Lee Lee/Others), Jacobi Hall (Nick/Billy Ivey Zippers/Butler/Others), Elizabeth Ritacco (Ensemble), and Blake Zolfo (Thomas/Cy Songheim/Friedrich/Others).

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Cy Songheim? Billy Ivey Zippers? Yes, it’s that kind of show and there are lots of inside jokes for theater geeks: dialogue that notes Edward Albee’s first acts are the best and to check the ABCs for theater listings; singing a patter song that puts down patter songs, and a lyric that proclaims “two seats on the aisle make me want to smile.”

Also, the creative team is superb and includes music director Gregory J. Dlugos, orchestrator Charlie Rosen, scenic designers David Gallo and Viveca Gardiner, costume designer Gabriel Berry, lighting designer David Lander, and sound designer Drew Levy, music preparation by Michael Mahadeen and wigs by Tom Watson.

Ticket prices range from $40 to $70, with discounts available, at tworivertheater.org, by calling 732-345-1400 or at the box office at 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank.

Journalist Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s theater news and reviews can be found on theatercues.com.


This article was first published in the Sept. 20-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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