Two River’s world premiere ‘Pamela’s First Musical’ is the perfect first for anyone

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When “Pamela’s First Musical” has its world premiere Sept. 8 at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, it will mark the culmination of a 20-plus year effort to bring Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein‘s fabulous, fun, funny and family-friendly story to the stage.

The show’s path to production was slowed by, among other things, the deaths of composer Cy Coleman in 2004 and Wasserstein in 2006; the search for the perfect premiere venue; and the busy schedules of the Tony Award-winning and oft-all-awards-nominated creative team.

“It never left our consciousness. We all went off and did a lot of different projects in the intervening year, but we kept getting pulled back to the show because we were so enthusiastically fond of it,” said lyricist David Zippel, who, with director/choreographer Graciela Daniele, was the show’s earliest advocates. “We always felt there was an audience for it. We always felt there was a place for it.”

That place turned out to be Two River. John Dias, who came in as the theater’s artistic director in 2010, is credited with Managing Director Michael Hurst for bringing new vitality to the Red Bank stage. Dias has been a champion of “Pamela’s First Musical” since his days with New York’s The Public Theater, Zippel said.

“He was our champion for the show at The Public but they tend to go to edgier fare, and if there is one thing ‘Pamela’s First Musical’ is not is edgy,” Zippel said. “But he’s carried a torch for ‘Pamela’ for all these years.’

A few years ago, Dias contacted Zippel about reviving efforts to produce “Pamela” and arranged for a few readings to help shape the play. Another Tony Award winner, Christopher Durang, came aboard to help finish the book. Durang is Wasserstein’s literary executor and was one of her closest friends.

Now “Pamela’s First Musical” is launching Two River’s 25th season. Based on Wasserstein’s 1996 children’s book of the same title, the show is a musical within a musical, a love letter from Wasserstein to her real-life niece, also named Pamela, and to Broadway, as The New York Times noted after seeing a staged reading.

As with many of Wasserstein’s works, the musical features strong, intelligent female characters. The playwright is probably best known for “The Sisters Rosensweig,” “Isn’t It Romantic”  and “The Heidi Chronicles,” which won the Drama Pulitzer and the Tony Award for Best Play, making Wasserstein the first woman to win the latter.

Pamela is a preteen from the suburbs struggling to find her place in her family and in the world after the death of her mother. Her father, well-meaning but mystified by his daughter, is planning to remarry, causing Pamela to feel further adrift.

Then Pamela’s larger-than-life Aunt Louise appears to whisk her away to Manhattan.

Carolee Carmello, who plays Louise, describes her as “a modern day Auntie Mame,” a successful career woman whose life seems exciting, mysterious and sophisticated to young Pamela. Aunt Louise takes Pamela to her first musical, introducing her to the dynamic on-stage performers and behind-the scenes artists who make Broadway magic. As Louise sings at one point, “”One thing makes me smile/Two seats on the aisle.” The one-act show lasts about 90 minutes.

“There’s some real heart to (Aunt Louise) and there are some really sweet moments with Pamela that show she’s not just this whirlwind of New York glamor,” said Carmello, a Bergen County resident who remembered reading Wasserstein’s book to her now-young adult children when they were younger. “She’s a woman who really cares around her niece, who is going through a difficult time.”

Carmello praised her “niece,” Sarah McKinley Austin, the 11-year-old actress who plays Pamela. Austin previously starred as Matilda in “Matilda the Musical” when it opened at the Kennedy Center Opera House in January 2016 and then toured with the show.

“She captures that kind of feeling that some of us have when we’re 11 years old of wanting to be somewhere other than where we are,” Carmello said, “that living in the imagination that happens at that age, the feeling that there are so many more exciting things than being with my brothers in this kitchen.”

Zippel said he saw the potential to turn Wasserstein’s children’s book into a musical soon after reading it in the mid-90s. He contacted the playwright, a friend, to get her thoughts and she was immediately on board. Both agreed that composer Coleman, who with Zippel won a Tony Award for 1989’s “City of Angels,” was the perfect fit.

“Cy was one of Broadway’s most original writers,” Zippel said. “He didn’t want to repeat himself and he wanted all of the songs to have a fresh take … This show has marches and traditional 2/4 tempo broadway songs and ballads and soaring anthems. There are all of this different styles, but all with a Cy Coleman twist. I think it’s Cy’s best musical and he thought so, too.”

One of the show’s biggest numbers, “It Started With A Dream,” features the cast of the musical within a musical and is an ode to the creativity that goes into bringing any production to life. It’s especially fitting given the long journey and hard work that the team behind “Pamela” put into making this premiere a reality.

“The show is about creativity and imagination and how theater can change your life in a lot of ways,” Zippel said. “It’s also about out finding your place in the world and determining who you are. Aunt Louise is teaching Pamela that she has to make her own life. If you decide you’re not going in the right direction, you can reinvent yourself.”

PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL

Two River Theater

21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank

Tickets: $20-70, available online at https://www.tworivertheater.org. Sept. 8 – Oct. 7

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at nataliepompilio@yahoo.com. Find her on Twitter @nataliepompilio. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.

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