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When writers die, and especially when they die young, their fans often hold out hope for one more masterpiece hiding away in a desk drawer, just waiting for someone to discover it. If such a work exists, though, it's usually better left mothballed. Case in point: Pamela's First Musical, a cloyingly vapid collaboration between Wendy Wasserstein and Cy Coleman, now receiving a belated world premiere at Two River Theater (TRT) in Red Bank, New Jersey.
The composer/librettist pair began adapting Wasserstein's 1996 children's book in the early aughts, along with lyricist David Zippel. The project hit a roadblock when Coleman died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004, at the age of 69. Fourteen months later, Wasserstein succumbed to lymphoma at 55. The work languished in limbo for more than a decade.
TRT rescued it from obscurity earlier this year, and Christopher Durang, Wasserstein's Yale School of Drama classmate and literary executor, completed his late friend's libretto. Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele directs and choreographs. As far as Broadway bona fides go, it hardly gets much starrier.
Unfortunately, what ends up on TRT's main stage is bland and unmemorable at best and shockingly tone-deaf at worst. Those who harbor warm feelings toward Wasserstein or Coleman should stay far away, lest their memories be spoiled.
The story follows Pamela (Sarah McKinley Austin), a precocious, motherless tween who performs plays in her bedroom, various stuffed animals serving as cast and crew. (The set, by David Gallo and Viveca Gardiner, suggests childhood in a major key). She shares a close bond with her Aunt Louise (Carolee Carmello), a globetrotting fashion designer brimming with joie de vivre.
On Pamela's 11th birthday, Louise arrives on a blue moped and whisks the girl away for a New York adventure. The docket includes a makeover, lunch at Sardi's, and, as indicated, a musical.
The fast-paced, funky city vibe contrasts with Pamela's staid suburban existence, where her well-meaning father (Howard McGillin) intends to marry an exercise-obsessed personal trainer (Erica Dorfler) to make the family whole again.
Wasserstein’s book paints Pamela’s love of theater and her life in general in crudely broad strokes. Although Daniele manages to stage an entire musical-inside-a-musical, ridiculously titled The Best Use of Feet, she never captures the sense of a little girl falling in love with the art form.
More pointedly, neither play nor production gives a strong sense of what Pamela longs to escape from. A few early moments suggest suburban conformity — the girl’s picture-perfect family wish she’d just be a little more normal — and a character’s death in the meta-musical momentarily jars Pamela, hitting too close to home.
It’s the only time Pamela’s mother’s death is discussed in something approaching realistic, heartrending terms; elsewhere, it’s met with saccharine platitudes. The seductive world of make-believe, the stark realities of grief and loss, and the struggle between childhood abandon and looming adult responsibility would all benefit from an extra dose of Durang’s caustic wit.
Money talks... and sings
Aunt Louise’s closest analog is Auntie Mame, the gregarious socialite immortalized by Patrick Dennis’s novel and Jerry Herman’s musical. She checks all the bohemian boxes: splashy career, posh Manhattan address, fabulous friends. But where Mame Dennis brims with spunk and spirit, Aunt Louise doesn’t much individuate herself, and Carmello’s loud but lifeless performance adds little to the mix.
Pamela’s First Musical also trades in what I’ve long considered the Wasserstein Problem: it drips with unexamined privilege, a sense among her mostly white, mostly wealthy characters that everyone just lives that way. (TRT’s production has an admirably diverse ensemble, but make no mistake — this show traffics in the superficial problems of the white, moneyed set).
This class cluelessness infects even Wasserstein’s more serious attempts as a dramatist. Here, in what’s essentially a piece of fluff, it seems especially intolerable.
Nowhere is this more evident than when Pamela and Louise dress for the theater, and Louise’s stereotypically gay assistant — because of course she has one of those — runs through a litany of styles for the girl to consider. He asks, “What do you want to be today? Cuban, Asian, fusion?”
The list goes on, without a moment’s thought that these are actual identities, not fashion statements. But for Wasserstein’s ultrarich crowd, cultures are to be donned and doffed like a series of colorful scarves.
The remaining 90 minutes contain material that's less offensive but equally oblivious. Wasserstein’s world suggests that every problem in life can be fixed by an afternoon at the theater; even diehard theater lovers — and I count myself among that rank — aren’t so naïve. But the characters on display here have very few problems to begin with.
Coleman’s bland score only hints at the unique fusion of classical music, bebop, jazz, and swing that infuses his best work, and Zippel’s lyrics are cringeworthy when they’re not forgettable. It’s safe to say that Pamela’s First Musical worked Cameron’s last nerve.
What, When, Where
Pamela’s First Musical. Book by Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang; music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by David Zippel. Graciela Daniele directed and choreographed. Through October 7, 2018, at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey. (732) 345-1400 or tworivertheater.org.
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