As you enter the Two River Theater, you may well be charmed by the set that David Gallo and Viveca Gardiner have designed.
It’s the quintessential little girl’s room, pastel and pretty with stuffed animals on the bed.
But it doesn’t show us what should be immediately apparent about the heroine of PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL.
For in her opening monologue (which really should be musicalized), 11-year-old Pamela tells us that she’s ca-razy for original Broadway cast albums.
Then where are they?
Pamela lives in Connecticut, apparently in the far eastern part, given that’s she’s never been to New York City. Still, in this age of incessant merchandising, why aren’t her walls plastered with framed window cards and photographs of her favorite performers? Where’s the WICKED baseball cap, the ANASTASIA mug, and the FROZEN T-shirt?
You’re about to argue that “The kid’s never been to Broadway, remember?” True, but all these items and more could have been sent to her by her doting Aunt Louise. We soon learn that she’s the only one who would have bought the lass those cast albums. Neither her widowed father Kevin nor her two burly brothers would have, for they wouldn’t know THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER from THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER.
Pamela’s dad admits that some people are “unique” while others cross the line to become “eccentric.” That’s the way he sees Aunt Louise.
That the writers made Louise his sister was a smart move. If she were a sister-in-law, Kevin would have an easier time preventing her from seeing Pamela. Having them as siblings also circumvents our predicting that by show’s end Louise will be Kevin’s new wife.
(You KNOW that this musical will have a happy ending. It just won’t have that one.)
Kevin worries about Pamela, who spends time in her room practicing her Tony-winning speech for acting, directing and writing. (Well, come on – which one of us hasn’t?)
Aunt Louise is the only family member who appreciates her niece’s vivid imagination, which, as many of us have known from bitter experience, is a real liability when you’re a child. Thus Pamela fully admits to us that she feels like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. How she yearns to find her corner of the sky, which here is described in song as “Where All the Pieces Fit.”
Now Pamela is expected downstairs for her birthday party. Would this really be the time for Kevin to spring on his daughter that he’s remarrying — and to Lyndell, whom Pamela has never liked? (She’s not crazy about Lyndell’s daughter Jessica, either.)
Nevertheless, Pamela should NOT immediately rail at the woman with a nasty “You’re not my mother!” This runs the risk of having us turn against her, even though Lyndell and Jessica are drawn as pretentious and unbearable (alas, to the point of caricature). A better approach would be to have Pamela brave and accepting about the situation, for then our hearts would break for her.
Aunt Louise arrives in time to circumvent further hostilities and tells the kid what she’s about to experience in “The Broadway Song.” This Auntie Mame type doesn’t just savor a musical; in one of David Zippel’s best lyrics, she sings “I go twice on matinee days!” She may also have a valid point when she proclaims that “A musical can cure almost everything!”
There’s a song when they arrive in the city, too. Now of course writing a ditty about New York is challengingly hard given that there have been hundreds of songs on the subject and plenty of great ones. Here we get “Manhattan Moves Me” which Aunt Louise sings as Pamela tags along.
(Good lyric: “A town that’s worth a toll.”)
Cy Coleman wrote the music and gave it a feeling similar to his classic tune of 52 years ago: “Big Spender.” That does make it right for 42nd Street’s unsavory characters that the creators and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele have put on stage.
But why show these ne’er-do-wells that haven’t dominated the street during this century? Here they should have taken two pages out of Wendy Wasserstein’s lovable 1996 children’s book. For it sports a marvelous double-trunk spread by illustrator Andrew Jackness that shows 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue where seven legitimate theaters spill above the sidewalks. The marquees there are ablaze with exciting titles and logos that are almost as bright as Pamela’s eyes when she sees them.
Granted, such a panoply would have been expensive. Yet we are in the age of projections which can’t be prohibitively expensive.
Aunt Louise also sees to it that Pamela gets a makeover, too. The girl is dressed by Robert, a very fussy type in most stereotypical fashion. (You MUST know what I mean.) At least Robert gets to deliver a nice sentiment when he gives a different definition of family.
Costume designer Gabriel Berry gives Pamela a lovely dress, but one must wonder if the kid will feel overdressed when she sees girls her age in the lobby wearing jeans and flip-flops.
Wasserstein started musicalizing her book soon after the turn of the century but sad to say, died in 2006. Her old friend Christopher Durang took over. Here’s guessing that he wrote the entire section where THE SOUND OF MUSIC is parodied. Doesn’t Captain Von Trapezoid seem to be a name he’d invent?
There’s a good deal of fun here for dyed-in-the-wool musical theater enthusiasts. Listen carefully to the famous music played when Maria sheds her nun’s outfit and reveals a Tyrolean one underneath.
They go to Sardi’s, where seven perfect replications of the caricatures of stars that dot the wall establish the location.
Here Pamela meets producer Bernie S. Gerry. That’s an inside joke because Bernard Jacobs and Gerard S. Schoenfeld were once Broadway’s most powerful executives.
(But why not Gerry S. Bernard? That surname is a more believable one.)
David Garrison admirably plays the part and gets a song about a critic who likes virtually nothing of the theater he sees. Here the creators made another wise decision. Instead of bringing on a pompous ass (which some critics certainly have been known to be), Bernie says he sees the guy at another Sardi’s table and details in the song how finicky the critic can be.
Zippel has included many names that that mean nothing to the general public — Isabelle Stevenson, the Nederlanders – in a song where we want the jokes to be funnier. Exacerbating the problem is that after Garrison finishes and get his requisite applause, the authors have him return to do an encore. There’s very little sadder than a musical’s giving an audience an encore that their applause hasn’t warranted.
Some arcane bits don’t do the show any harm. Whether or not the audience recognizes that Hal Hitner is the esteemed Hal Prince doesn’t matter much. For those who know that Prince is famous for his white hair, beard and glasses atop his head, that’s a bonus. Although Michael Mulheren is beefier and taller than Prince, he resembles him close enough.
But must Hal be given a surname that sounds perilously like Hitler?
That’s easily corrected, but here’s where PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL faces an insurmountable problem, at least in a regional production. The musical-within-a-musical is not a Great Big Broadway Show, but one of off-Broadway proportions.
Rarely are more than a half-dozen people on stage for Pamela to see. We want her to experience something that resembles the title songs of DOLLY, MAME or “Who’s That Woman?” In Wasserstein’s children’s book, she wrote “At least 50 dancers in pink-and-yellow spangled dresses came spinning onto the stage. They were followed by at least 50 men in top hats dancing with umbrellas.”
All right, it’s been 72 years since Broadway has seen a show of that size (the 1946 revival of SHOW BOAT, if you’re curious). So that was wishful thinking on Wasserstein’s part. Still, we’d like to have Pamela see more than just a duet that Mary Ethel Bernadette (get it?) and Nathan Hines Kline (get IT?) get in Act One. When she expresses her disappointment – something we don’t want her to endure — we certainly understand why.
As Pamela, Sarah McKinley Austin is an excellent performer – especially when she must do moves commensurate with vaudeville. That art form died about three-quarters of a century before Ms. Austin arrived on the scene and yet the kid has the heart, soul and moves of a vaudevillian.
Carolee Carmello has the vivacity and charm that Louise must have. Andréa Burns as Mary Ethel Bernadette does an excellent Julie Andrews imitation. Howard McGillin does well in showing a conflicted father and also gets to play Nathan Hines Kline – who’s very much like the arch Bruce Granit in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.
The show is almost saved by a smart idea: Pamela imagines herself in the musical and joins the cast on stage. After that, however, everything wraps up too readily and too easily.
Durang and Zippel – the only two writers who are still with us – take a listen to a song on one of Pamela’s original cast albums: FADE OUT – FADE IN: “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged.” There’s enough here to ensure that PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL is not experiencing its last stand.