‘PAMELA’S FIRST’ IS ONE TO REMEMBER, IN TWO RIVER PREMIERE

Howard McGillin and Sarah McKinley Austin co-star in PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL, the season opener now in its world premiere engagement at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. Photos by T.C. ERICKSON

Published in the Asbury Park Press, September 21, 2018

Their many productions for family audiences have included a homegrown musicalization of The Wind in the Willows that starred Tituss Burgess as Mr. Toad; a Charlotte’s Web told with live actors and puppets, and imaginative revisits to several favorites from decades past — but with the show that opens their milestone 25th season of professional theater in Monmouth County, the folks at Two River Theater might have happened upon their most crowdpleasing all-ager yet.    

Conceived by Wendy Wasserstein — and based on her 1996 children’s book of the same name — Pamela’s First Musical makes a very long-awaited world premiere, not in the Broadway of its setting, but at Two River’s branded Red Bank performing arts center. Despite the added contributions of Christopher Durang, the music of celebrated composer Cy Coleman, and the participation of an all-star cast at a 2008 concert production, the show’s journey to the stage was unable to surmount the obstacles of Wasserstein and Coleman’s passings — although you’d hardly know it from this fun and colorful limited engagement, presented without intermission (except for a fake one that’s actually part of the proceedings) inside the Rechnitz auditorium.

While both Wasserstein (the Pulitzer winning playwight of The Heidi Chronicles) and her posthumous collaborator Durang (author of the Tony winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) necessarily dialed down the edgier aspects of their literary voices here, the book of Pamela’s First Musical is nonetheless a breezy affair, packed with plenty of knowing in-jokes for Broadway buffs, and hitting all the bases for a kid-centric story in which Pamela (Sarah McKinley Austin) — an 11 year old misfit with a not-so-secret life as the award winning star of her own bedroom-based epics — finds her already terrible-awful birthday ruined by the news that her widowed dad (long-running Phantom star Howard McGillin) plans to marry into a family of obnoxiously self-smitten health and fitness freaks. Enter free-wheeling Aunt Louise (Carolee Carmello), toting a chocolate cake with extra frosting — and a pledge to whisk her niece away to the big city, where the two kindred spirits will catch a Broadway musical, and maybe even meet some of the amazing people who make that special kind of magic happen.

Set in a classic fantasy NYC of doorman buildings, fabulous walk-in closets, prime tables at Sardi’s, and blockbuster shows to which tickets can be scored on a whim, this Musical is actually much shorter on spectacle than most of what draws Broadway bus-tour bucks these days, with the majority of its settings fleshed out through creative costuming, lighting, and painted backdrops that evoke the style of the original book illustrator Andrew Jackness. Several of the actors double up on their roles (for reasons that often have nothing to do with economics), and several “tap” solos are conveyed through use of percussion instruments — but there’s no skimping on the level of Tony’d talent attached to this show, with a cast under the nimble direction of ten-time nominee Graciela Daniele, and a live orchestra under the baton of Gregory J. Dlugos.

Although it understandably doesn’t scale the heights of such career milestones as Sweet Charity, Coleman’s score (equipped with lyrics by David Zippel, his Tony winning partner in City of Angels) illuminates Wasserstein’s simple story with a set of largely character-based songs that range from Pamela’s solo plaint “Where the Pieces Fit,” to the McGillin spotlight “You Make Me Proud.” Freehold native David Garrison — the Tony winning actor-singer known to many as neighbor Steve on the sitcom Married With Children — delivers a comic highlight when, as big-time producer Bernie S. Gerry, he channels the sourpuss worldview of a contrarian critic in “I Know What I Like.” 

As Aunt Louise — a leopard-coated guardian angel who carries more than a trace of Auntie Mame (or even Auntie Claus, from the children’s book series by Red Bank-based author and illustrator Elise Primavera) — Broadway mainstay Carmello dominates the show’s first half through such numbers as “The Broadway Song,” “Reinvent Yourself,” and the somewhat misguided “street” serenade “Manhattan Moves Me,” even as she’s forced to take a seat for much of the latter scenes, in which Pamela and Louise arrive at the theater for the big matinee. 

As for that show-within-a-show — a little thing called The Best Use of Feet — it’s a largely hilarious, gentle jab at hoary stage cliches that seems like something straight out of Max Bialystock’s reject pile, were it not for the fact that it purportedly won the Tony as “Best Musical of All Time.” Re-appearing as the larger-than-life master thespian Nathan Hines Kline, McGillin teams with Andrea Burns (On Your FeetIn the Heights) as leading lady Mary Ethel Bernadette, for a delightfully ridiculous romp that manages playful tweaks at such warhorses as A Chorus LineAnnie, and (especially) The Sound of Music. By the time that audience member (and budding critic) Pamela literally gets into the act, the onstage pageant becomes a thing that gleefully blurs all lines between “real” life, and the high-stepping hyper-reality of the realm of musical make-believe.

At the center of it all, and making a great impression in her first original starring role, is Ms. Austin, a young veteran of major national tours (Matilda) who more than holds her own among the Tony’d talent pool of her fellow castmates. Blessedly free of the overly trained vocal mannerisms displayed by other pre-teen performers, the actress presents a “real” kid of vivid imagination and scary-good skills; one who Knows What She Likes every bit as much as that curmudgeonly critic. 

Call it a “meta”-musical experience, although don’t strain to overthink things if you do. At its best, Pamela’s First Musical is exactly what it aims to be — a family entertainment that’s genuinely “fun for all ages,” and a great little intro to a magical world that’s just made to order for that special Pamela in one’s life. 

The show continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances through October 7, with ticket info and reservations available by calling the box office at 732-345-1400, or visiting tworivertheater.org.