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The Long-Awaited Pamela's First Musical at Last Comes to the Stage

The show, based on Wendy Wasserstein's children's book, gets a full production at Two River Theater.

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.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

What was your first musical? It's a question theater fans love to ask one another, in part because that fledgling experience is an entry point to the magic of the stage. Whatever your first show, it was an initiation into a new world.

That milestone event in the life of a child is the subject of Pamela's First Musical, now having its world premiere at Two River Theater. The musical's journey to Red Bank, New Jersey, however, was uncertain for many years. Pulitzer Prize winner Wendy Wasserstein published a children's book of the same name in 1996, and the theatrical potential of its story captured the attention of legendary Tony Award-winning composer Cy Coleman, who agreed to write the score for a musical adaptation. Wasserstein and playwright Christopher Durang penned the book, and David Zippel wrote the lyrics, but both Wasserstein and Coleman died before the show made it to the stage. The closest it came to a staging was a benefit concert, starring Donna Murphy and Christian Borle, that was held in 2008, and despite a couple attempts to mount it elsewhere in a full production, the musical never had a run.

Until now. Twelve years after Wasserstein's death, Pamela's First Musical can now be seen in a delightful production with a marvelous cast, featuring Carolee Carmello as Aunt Louise, Howard McGillin as Pamela's father, and talented young actor Sarah McKinley Austin in the title role. The 90-minute, family-friendly love letter to Broadway captures the thrill of theater from the perspective of a child experiencing it for the first time. Though the show is still finding its stage legs, with some tweaking it seems destined to move to a larger venue.

The story revolves around Pamela, a highly imaginative girl who dreams of winning awards — which she sings about in the enchanting "Broadway Song" — but she is fed up with her family. Her widower father doesn't seem to connect with her anymore, and now he's dating a health nut (Erica Dorfler, brilliant in several roles) who wants Pamela to be besties with her annoying daughter (a comical Hillary Fisher). To make matters worse, Pamela's brothers (Wesley J. Barnes and Blake Zolfo as a humorous duo throughout the show) won't stop teasing her. On her 11th birthday, sophisticated, fun-loving Aunt Louise sweeps into town to whisk her niece away to New York City to see her first musical — unbeknownst to her father.

Sarah McKinley Austin (Pamela) and Carolee Carmello (Aunt Louise) in Pamela's First Musical at Two River Theater.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

On the way to the show, Aunt Louise, who coos "dahhhling" at everyone, treats Pamela to a fancy meal at Sardi's, a shopping spree (featuring fabulous costumes by Gabriel Berry), and a backstage visit with a producer (David Garrison, who sings the hilarious satire of theater critics "I Know What I Like"). While Pamela watches a nutty Sound of Music-themed musical called The Best Use of Feet, her father frantically searches for her until they reunite and discover that they have a greater connection than they realized.

Some elements of Pamela's First Musical seem ready for Broadway. David Gallo and Viveca Gardiner's set captures the whimsy of a child's imagination, with its surreally shaped furniture and pastel hues. David Lander's exuberant lighting also clearly illustrates the liveliness of Pamela's imagination and the dullness of her family's "normal" world.

For all the dramatic potential of the story, however, Graciela Daniele directs this production like a Broadway musical in miniature. All the pieces for something bigger are here: a great cast, memorable songs, and a fast-paced, exciting narrative. But for a show about the Great White Way, Pamela's First Musical in its current incarnation feels small. Carmello gives a hilarious performance as Aunt Louise while never taking her character to the over-the-top, Auntie Mame-like portrayal we know this character could sustain. McGillin's father seems to fade into the background until his poignant song near the end, "You Make Me Proud." Daniele's choreography too feels understated. During the riotous clothes-shopping song, "Reinvent Yourself," featuring Nick Cearley in a standout performance as the sales clerk Robert, the voguing ensemble members enter with an exciting dance routine that seems to end before it has begun.

Yet despite the reserved direction, there's much to recommend Pamela's First Musical. Its story will appeal to younger audience members, while its satirical jokes and insider references (two characters are named Nathan Hines Kline and Betty Songheim) will amuse theater-loving grown-ups. When answering the question "What was your first musical?," a new generation of theatergoers ought to be able to answer, "Pamela's First Musical."

Howard McGillin as Pamela's father, Kevin, and Sarah McKinley Austin in the title role of Pamela's First Musical at Two River Theater.
(© T. Charles Erickson)