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Evening Primrose (DVD Review)

8 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$29.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Anthony Perkins, Charmian Carr, Larry Gates, Dorothy Stickney.

According to archivist Jane Klane, who’s Manager of Research Services at the Paley Center of Media, this Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman fantasy from 1966 has been the single most consumer-requested musical ever produced for television — the kind for which every enthusiast owns a horrific, 75th-generation bootleg. I would have thought NBC’s 1955 musical production of Our Town (with Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint) would be right up there, but it’s impossible to deny Sondheim’s clout and standing.

Aired just once on the tony, if ill-viewed, Wednesday night ABC “Stage 67” series that ran for 26 weeks beginning in 1966, Primrose is a flaky affair about a human community that lives in the basement of a large Manhattan department store — able to freeze itself into unnoticeable mannequins whenever the operation’s apparently inept security crew makes its rounds in the middle of the night. This comes as quite of a surprise to a disillusioned poet (Anthony Perkins), who thinks the decision to stake out his own residency in the store is an original idea. In terms of years, he is much younger than any of his fellow inhabitants — with the exception of a pert young woman in her blossoming 20s (Charmian Carr). Ah, romance.

Though Sondheim and writer Goldman (The Lion in Winter) would later collaborate on Broadway’s Follies, this period was a rather fallow time for the composer, who was coming off an unhappy collaboration with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz? — which in turn had been preceded by the commercial flop of Anyone Can Whistle (more admired now than then). A couple Primrose songs (“I Remember” and “Take Me to the World”) have subsequently become cabaret favorites, but there have been very few chances for most people to see or re-see this presentation, which aired once on Nov. 16, 1966, opposite CBS’s then-popular “The Danny Kaye Show” and NBC’s “I Spy.” Good luck.

Recipient of mixed (at best) reviews at the time, the whole thing is a little on the fey and precious side — but then, so was the thrice-produced Mary Martin version of Peter Pan for NBC, which didn’t keep it from becoming an institution (of course, repeated airings aided this). Perkins had a better-than-adequate singing voice (his resumé included Broadway musicals and LPs for RCA Victor) that one observer has compared to Chet Baker’s. And soprano Carr was just coming off her role as the eldest child in the screen version of The Sound of Music, her only other role of note and — in an interesting coincidence — a movie that just has just come out on Blu-ray practically as we speak.

Primrose aired in color, but eOne’s release (from the DVD godsend Archive of American Television) is from a black-and-white kinescope, which is the only version that exists. However, the disc’s bonus section contains about 20 minutes of color test footage (Perkins still looks strikingly fresh-faced six years after Psycho) that was shot in the old Stern’s department store, which was on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It’s a total trip to see customers walking around in the clothes department from five-plus decades ago — and in a store that closed its doors three years later. Macy’s was originally supposed to be the shooting site until its powers-that-were balked at the last minute, apparently because the story wouldn’t reflect particularly well on the corporate security system.

Other bonus extras include Klane’s audio interview of Carr plus an on-camera sit-down with Primrose director Paul Bogart, who’s a little tentative at age 90 but still full of memories (many good, a few less so) of the production. If the Archive of American Television is getting into the Stage 67 holdings, my own No. 1 Holy Grail would be the latter’s presentation of Noon Wine (adapted from Katharine Anne Porter’s novella and starring Olivia de Havilland and Jason Robards), which aired a week after Primrose. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, it is said to be among his finest works, and it does exist in one or two highly guarded copies. So, come to think, does Our Town. Hmmmm.

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