A BROADWAY ‘VALENTINE’ GETS ITS LONG-AWAITED DELIVERY, AT TWO RIVER THEATER

Left to right: Tony nominated actor-singer and Monmouth County native David Garrison (we all know him as Steve on MARRIED WITH CHILDREN) appears with Sarah McKinley Austin and Carolee Carmello in PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL, the talent-packed project that makes its long overdue world premiere this weekend as the opening entry in Two River Theater’s milestone 25th season. (photo by T.C. Erickson)

Expanded from an article published in the Asbury Park Press, September 14 2018

It’s a life-affirming, upbeat show that boasts a book by two titans of the modern American theater, Wendy Wasserstein (the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles) and Christopher Durang (author of the Tony winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). It sports a score of songs by Tony’d tunesmiths Cy Coleman and David Zippel (whose various credits include Sweet CharityOn the Twentieth CenturyThe Will Rogers Follies, and the Disney films Hercules and Mulan) — and its public bow in an all-star 2008 concert production drew the participation of Joel Grey, Sandy Duncan, Donna McKechnie and Tommy Tune, while inspiring the New York Times to hail it as “a valentine to Broadway.”

And yet, that love letter would somehow remain lost in the post for years, due in large part to the untimely passings of co-creators Wasserstein and Coleman. All that is about to change, however, as the team at Red Bank’s Two River Theater presides over the formal world premiere staging of Pamela’s First Musical, in the inaugural production of the professional company’s milestone 25th season. Adapted from the children’s book of the same name by Wasserstein, the show opens tonight, September 14, as the most ambitious “all-singing, all-dancing” project in the history of the troupe whose recent forays into musical theater have included the debut of the runaway phenomenon that is Be More Chill. 

Continuing its limited engagement through October 7 at Two River’s mainstage Rechnitz auditorium, the show centers around the universally appealing story of a young girl whose “eccentric and fabulous” Aunt Louise (triple Tony nominee Carolee Carmello) rescues her from a less than memorable birthday — by spiriting her away to the big city, where Pamela (Sarah McKinley Austin) becomes immersed in the world of a lavish musical; both via the magic on stage and the vivid characters who make it all happen. The production reunites two creative contributors from that 2008 staging, including the ten-time Tony nominee Graciela Daniele (Annie Get Your Gun, The Visit) as director and choreographer — and, in the role of producer Bernie S. Gerry (a playful amalgam of Schubert organization bigwigs Bernie Jacobs and Gerry Schoenfeld), a familiar face of stage and screen, Monmouth County native David Garrison.

“A lot of references will have special meaning for Broadway fans,” explains the actor and singer who’s best recognized from several seasons as the Bundy clan’s next-door neighbor Steve on the long-running sitcom Married With Children — and whose numerous heavyweight stage credits include a stint as The Wizard in Wicked (a role he originated in the show’s touring production), Torch Song TrilogyTitanic, and his own Tony nominated turn in A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine. 

“But even if you don’t know anyone who’s a fan of musical theater, you’ll see that it’s about finding your true family, and your true place in the world.”

The graduate of Freehold High School confesses to his own personal “Pamela moment” (to coin a phrase), when his parents, both career educators, took him to see his first Broadway show in 1964. The occasion was no less a milestone than Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! — and, as the throughly smitten and theater-bug bitten Garrison recalls, “when that train came on stage, I said I’ve gotta be there…I’ve got to be a part of this.”

Years of intensive dedication — and the cited mentorship of some respected Freehold teachers — would pay off for the busy performer who would go on to recurring roles in such high-profile TV dramas as The West Wing and Law & Order; a starring turn alongside Jason Bateman in the short-lived series It’s Your Move; a chance to sing opera with the London Symphony Orchestra and at Carnegie Hall — and the project that he names as his “favorite show ever,”  Randy Newman’s adaptation of Faust, in which Garrison appeared as the Devil.

“It was too big for Off Broadway…and just too esoteric for Broadway,” the actor recalls of the show that mounted high-profile productions in Los Angeles and Chicago. “But it was worth it to be able to work with Randy Newman, who’s wickedly funny; an incredible intellect…a real mensch.”

Garrison predicts that many audience members will find spiritual kinship with the character of young Pamela, a kid who “marches to her own drummer, who doesn’t fit in…and who finds herself with the help of her own personal Auntie Mame, as it were.”

Praising his co-star Sarah, who played the title role of Matilda in a major touring production of the Broadway show, Garrison offers that “This girl’s a real trouper, with none of the attendant baggage that often comes with young performers…she’s keeping all of our feet to the fire!”

“With both Cy and Wendy gone, there was a lot of difficulty in bringing this show to production,” Garrison adds. “But David Zippel was so close to Cy Coleman, that he was able to round out the score…and Chris Durang was able to flesh out Wendy’s book, in a way that makes up for the absence of these people who we all wish were still here with us.” 

“You could say that the vocabulary of musical theater has changed in recent years, and to have this opportunity to hear ‘new’ music by Cy Coleman is something truly special,” he adds. “Cy was a real craftsman…you don’t hear song structure like that anymore.”

For his part, the veteran character player who’s “been at this longer than I can even remember” — and whose fond memories of a Monmouth County youth revolve around such local landmarks as Vic’s Restaurant in Bradley Beach, and Freehold’s iconic Jersey Freeze — continues to nimbly navigate the shifting currents of show business; waxing philosophical to the effect that “as you get older, you don’t get as many dates…but you get more parts. The whole trick is to outlive your competition!”

Pamela’s First Musical opens tonight, September 14 and continues its limited engagement with a mix of matinee and evening performances through October 7. Tickets ($20 – $70) and full schedule details can be had by calling 732-345-1400 or visiting http://www.tworivertheater.org.