‘Pamela’s First Musical’ would be a good first musical for anyone

Pamela's First Musical review

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Howard McGillin and Sarah McKinley Austin co-star in “Pamela’s First Musical,” which is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Oct. 7.

If you’re a theater-loving parent, and are wondering what your son or daughter’s first musical should be, the Two River Theater in Red Bank is offering a great option with a new work that happens to be called “Pamela’s First Musical.” It’s primarily for children, but its catchy songs, buoyant energy and clever references to Broadway classics makes it quite enjoyable for parents, too.

Pamela (Sarah McKinley Austin) is a preteen, whom we meet, at first, alone in her candy-colored bedroom, lamenting her fate. She’s a misunderstood suburban misfit. Her father (Howard McGillin) just wants her to be “normal,” while she wants more from life than that. Her brothers seem like weird, alien creatures. Her mother has died, and her father’s new fiancée, Lyndell (Erica Dorfler), is a comically ardent health freak who prepares an egg-white frittata, rather than a cake, for Pamela’s birthday.

Carolee Carmello, right, with Sarah McKinley Austin in “Pamela’s First Musical.”

Pamela may not have much use for Lyndell, but idolizes her breezy, fun-loving Aunt Louise (Carolee Carmello), whose favorite word is “splendiferous,” and who has vowed to take Pamela to her first Broadway musical. The trip to Broadway takes up most of the show, with Louise introducing Pamela to theatrical types like costume designer Robert (Nick Cearley), who helps her reinvent her look; a famous actress, Mary Ethel Bernadette (Andréa Burns), and producer Bernie S. Gerry (David Garrison).

Pamela is thrilled, of course, and after an amusing play-with-in-a-play, comes to a kind of reconciliation with her family, including her kindly but previously misguided father.

“Pamela’s First Musical” is based on Wendy Wasserstein’s 1996 children’s book of the same name. Wasserstein was planning to turn it into a musical herself, with the help of composer Cy Coleman and lyricist David Zippel, but Coleman’s death, in 2004, halted the project, and then Wasserstein died in 2006. But Two River artistic director John Dias took an interest in it and, with Wasserstein’s longtime friend Christopher Durang helping to complete the book, the musical is finally having its first full production in Red Bank, with a cast of 15, and Broadway veteran Graciela Daniele serving as director and choreographer.

Wasserstein, Coleman, Durang and Daniele, plus a deeply experience cast … that’s a lot of talent behind a charming, cheerful little children’s musical. If I had to pick an MVP, it would be the late Coleman: The composer, whose credits include everything from the musicals “Sweet Charity” and “Barnum” to the Frank Sinatra hits “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “Witchcraft,” came up with a bunch of sturdy, instantly memorable melodies.

They’re not the kind of melodies you often hear in new musicals these days. But they’re totally appropriate for a musical that’s so enamored with Broadway’s past, while still hinting, through its main character, that the Great White Way has a bright future.

“Pamela’s First Musical” will be at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank through Oct. 7. Visit tworivertheater.org.

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