Evening Primrose Times Two: Sondheim's Mini-Masterpiece on Stage and DVD

Originally I learned of Evening Primrose's existence from a recording of "I Remember" as sung by jazz diva Diane Reeves. It should not have come as a surprise that the song was originally from as musical, as so many jazz standards do come by the way of theatre.

But Evening Primrose is a totally unique piece, since it was a one hour TV musical, aired once and never to be seen again on stage or TV. Collectors have their ways, however, and pirated copies made the rounds. I was first exposed to snippets of the TV version via my favorite research tool, YouTube.

As if by magic, the long awaited DVD became available within a week of my first look at the clips. Even more extraordinary was that the day I received it in the mail I learned of a benefit for The St. George's Society (a non profit that helps advance the education of Brits/Commonwealthers who come to the US.) concert version to be performed for the first time in the USA. In less than three days I was able to partake of Evening Primrose twice!

Part of the fascination with the piece is the nature of the story as well as the impossibly beautiful score. A dissatisfied poet (of not much talent) has decided to reject the world and live in a department store, sleeping by day and writing by night, surrounded by merchandise and manikins.

He is surprised to find that he is not alone in his choice of lifestyle and is quickly vetted by the elderly residents of the store. With a touch of Sunset Boulevard, Rosemary's Baby and The Twilight Zone, this little musical is actually somewhat of a horror story.

The poet meets one young resident, a despised outcast amongst the group who claims she is not "one of them." She did not choose her cloistered life, but is being kept prisoner so she will not 'out' the other residents.

After seeing the staged reading and viewing the TV production, I can see why it is vital to watch it on screen to glean the message and effects of the plot. The real star of EP is the department store and the merchandise within it. The escalator is used to a stunning and scary effect as are the shadows and lighting effects on the old recording.

One could take the plot for what it is, but it appears to be rife with metaphors - thus not in the least dated. Mrs. Monday, the leader of the pack, often referred to the market's crash propelling her into hiding. And she is not talking 1929 - some of the "younger residents" suffered from that catastrophe. Hmm.

I am getting more and more excited about Anthony Perkins outside of Psycho whenever I catch him in a movie or, more surprisingly, a musical. A perfect male ingénue, I could imagine him doing LT Cable in South Pacific and the like. His voice and movements are fluid and natural - serious and winking at the same time. He was a true star and his performance in EP was perfect in every way. Charmian Carr was angelic but a bit challenged by the music's range and admitted as much in the special features interview. I suggest that serious vocal buffs listen to all available versions of "I Remember" to understand the majesty of the song.

Directed Paul Bogart with a book by James Goldman, Evening Primrose stars Anthony Perkins as Charles Snell, Charmian Carr as Ella Harkins, Larry Gates as Roscoe Potts and a very formidable Dorothy Stickney as Mrs. Monday. It is based on short story by John Collier.

Just some hours before partaking of the DVD I had returned home from a concert version at The Gerald W. Lynch Theater in Manhattan as produced by Margot Astrachan with the direction of Tony Walton. A joyous affair, I was glad to see it -- although, as mentioned above, it really lives on the screen. It was great to hear Ella's music sung by a real soprano, Jessica Grove. In a bit of stunt casting, Candice Bergen was brought in as Mrs. Monday. She might not be a spring chicken, but is still decades too young and way too genial for the spindly Mrs. Monday. Roscoe Potts as played by John Cunningham was spot on, and Sean Parker was a bright Charles.