REVIEWS: Primrose

Primrose in Concert
Back Stage January 2, 2004
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Although the Gershwin musical Primrose ran 225 performances in London, it never reached New York until now. Its London run was in the same season that saw the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good presented on Broadway. Musicals Tonight!, which like City Center’s Encores! And the York Theatre’s Mufti series, usually presents revivals of lost treasures, offered the North American premiere, allowing for a first look. It turns out thet Primrose is the name of an eagerly awaited novel being written by novelist Hilary Vane, who is modeling his heroine on the beautiful ward of his uncooperative neighbor in the country.

Primrose is not the kind of sassy and bright jazz musical with which George and Ira Gershwin are usually associated, but instead a very English comedy-of-manners tale of mistaken identity written by British playwrights George Grossmith and Guy Bolton. Only one song lyric is credited to Ira alone, while 18 are credited solely to Desmond Carter, and four are collaborations between the two. Instead of the usual syncopated Gershwin tempos, much of this score resembles the work of Gilbert and Sullivan and Noel Coward. Strangely enough, the most memorable songs are by the forgotten Carter, such as "When Toby Is Out Of Town," "Mary Queen Of Scots" and "That New Fangled Mother Of Mine." Overall, the show is charming, but extremely old-fashioned.

Director Thomas Mills did well with the comedy-of-manners style and created a polished entertainment, aided by the musical direction and vocal arrangements of Barbara Anselmi. Gavin Esham was most memorable in the comic jester role of Toby Mopham, originally created by Leslie Henson. As the novelist and his muse, Michael Shawn Lewis and Cristin Mortenson made a lovely, if humorless, couple. Brynn O’Malley was a bundle of energy as Pinky Peach (aka the cosmetician Mme. Frazeline), particularly when performing "Naughty Baby." Ron Lee Savin’s Sir Barnaby, the conservative squire, was suitably blustery.

Little flower - Primrose
Off-Off Broadway December 10, 2003
Reviewed by Seth Bisen-Hersh

Primrose originally premiered in London in 1924. Almost eight decades later, it has been presented at Musicals Tonight! It is a typical love story with a catchy Gershwin score with a typically (for Musicals Tonight!) talented cast.

The plot of Primrose follows three entwined love stories. The first is that of Freddie (Jeremy Leiner) and May (Carey Anderson). They love each other, but, alas, Freddie has been promised to Joan (Cristin Mortenson) by her father and his uncle, Sir Barnaby (Ron Lee Savin). Joan, though, falls in love with a writer of luscious love stories, Hilary (Michael Shawn Lewis). Hilary falls for Joan, too, because she is a sweet, naïve girl, unlike the ones he usually falls for. However, Sir Barnaby refuses to acquiesce, until, of course, right before the finale.

The other couple is Toby (Gavin Esham) and Pinkie (Brynn O'Malley). Toby proposes to Pinkie but wants out of it, so he employs Hilary's help, having Hilary pretend to seduce her, so Toby can walk in on them. Unfortunately, Joan walks in on them, too. But by the end Toby, too, has repented his ways, and gives into his marriage.

The show is too long for its content. There are long, superfluous spurts of dialog. The show is peppered with some clever puns, even if some are so dated they go over the modern audience's head. The best part is the Gershwin score. Although it does not contain any classics, it is still the Gershwins in their prime. The songs are melodious and harmonious with clever lyrics and perfect rhymes in only ways the Gershwins could provide.

As always, Musicals Tonight! gathered a plethora of talented performers. The ensemble (which at times felt right out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta) blended nicely and had a charming chemistry. The standout performer in this show was Brynn O'Malley as Pinkie. O'Malley was in character every second she was on stage. Additionally, she had a powerful, nicely mixed tone and dynamic energy. Finally, she had great facial expressions and a good sense of what to do with her eyebrows.

Primrose was directed and choreographed by Musicals Tonight!'s staple director, Thomas Mills. As always, his clever use of the script binders was apparent, as well as his knack for using the space well and keeping the pacing up. The costumes were colorful. The minimal set was adequate.

This was a chance to see a Gershwin show that may never get presented again, put on by a capable cast and creative team.

Gershwin musical Primrose makes its New York debut December 11, 2003
Reviewed by Michael Dale

Most musicals of the 1920's were not intended for posterity. Many producers saw them as vehicles for live performances of new hit songs, much like today's rock concerts, and the idea that the script of a Broadway musical would be of interest to anyone the next season, much less the next century, was laughable. But musical theatre grew into a uniquely American art form and today any discovery of its discarded roots is a cause for celebration.

The latest cause for celebration can be seen on the tiny stage of the 14th Street Y, where Musicals Tonight! is presenting the New York premiere of George and Ira Gershwin's Primrose, a show that only existed in piecemeal before producer Mel Miller spent two years researching through the Library of Congress, the Museum of the City of New York, the Lincoln Center Library, the Goodspeed archives and the British Library, pasting together existing pages until the most authentic score and libretto possible could be formed.

After a year-long absence from the New York stage, 1924 saw three new Broadway musicals composed by George Gershwin plus the premiere of his "Rhapsody in Blue." The last of these musicals, Lady, Be Good, would have the first score completely written in partnership with his lyricist brother Ira. But before that was to be, producers Alex A. Aarons and Vinton Freedly (who named the Alvin Theatre after themselves) sent the boys, along with prolific book writer Guy Bolton, on a liner to England to collaborate with British lyricist Desmond Carter and his countryman librettist George Grossmith on a musical specifically for the London audience. Although the resulting Primrose was a resounding hit, running for 225 performances, Aarons and Freedley had no intention of moving it to Broadway, where it would compete for business with Lady, Be Good, opening two months later.

With Bolton having the most experience of the five collaborators in writing book musicals, Primrose greatly resembles the earlier Princess Musicals he created with Jerome Kern. Presented in three acts, it was a small scale show with contemporary costumes, dealing with the terribly modern issue of what a pretty young socialite is to do when she finds out the handsome writer, whose latest romantic novel is being published in serial form, plans to provide his central character -- whom she identifies with greatly -- with an ending she doesn't find particularly happy. (Yes, in 1924 this was a modern issue.) The usual assortment of daffy characters and complicated plot twists featuring mismatched couples and elaborate disguises was also within Grossmith's comfort zone, as his father was a leading player in many of Gilbert and Sullivan's premiere productions.

For this frothy confection Gershwin provided a score sounding like nothing we're accustomed to hearing from him. The blues and jazz influences which colored his work up until that point were discarded for an operetta inspired sound, particularly in the first act's ballads and choral pieces. Acts II and III are packed with more comedy numbers and charm songs, providing simple, peppy melodies containing nary a hint of the tricky syncopation and sophisticated chord progressions that New York audiences would embrace two months later in Lady, Be Good. But by far the most outstanding contribution to Primrose is the comedy lyrics of Desmond Carter, who penned the words to seventeen of the score's twenty-two songs and collaborated with Ira Gershwin on four of the remaining five. Two among them, "Isn't It Horrible What They Did to Mary, Queen of Scots" and "That New Fangled Mother of Mine," shine with humor and wordplay worthy of Noel Coward. Carter even wrote new lyrics to "Boy Wanted," replacing those Ira had written three years earlier for A Dangerous Maid.

Presented as a staged reading with scripts in hand, director Thomas Mills' threadbare production features an exuberant cast who gamely plunges into material filled with references and humor that often mean nothing to a contemporary American audience. But sometimes an expertly executed comic rhythm is all that's needed to produce a laugh and Gavin Esham, alternately recalling both P.G. Wodehouse and the aforementioned Coward in his role as a bumbling playboy, provides an evening's worth of them. His vampy counterpart, Brynn O'Malley, is a flashy belter who throws a three minute party with each of her songs. And when Cristin Mortenson, as the pretty young socialite, gets a lesson from O'Malley on how to be popular with the boys by becoming a "Naughty Baby," her awkward transition from good girl to sexpot is the funniest makeover in town.

Primrose is by no means a rediscovered classic, but by finding and mounting this atypical effort, Musicals Tonight! gives us a new side of one of America's greatest composers to consider. "We find these puppies, we put them on their feet...," says Miller. "We trust these guys. Even if they're not 'Wow!, they're pretty darn good."

Gershwin's Primrose Buds Beautifully at Musicals Tonight!
AmericanTheater Web December 15, 2003
Reviewed by Andy Probst

Santa's (or choose your appropriate holiday gift-bearing icon) has come a little early for musical theater lovers in New York. Or more aptly, Mel Miller, producer of Musicals Tonight!, disguised as a gift-bearing elf, has at least put an intriguing package in our view - the American premiere of George Gershwin’s 1924 Primrose.

An explanation: Primrose, with music by Gershwin, lyrics by brother Ira as well as Desmond Carter, and book by George Grossmith and Guy Bolton, opened in London on September 11, 1924, where it ran for a healthy (for the day) 255 performances. Producers intended for it to come to America, but its inherent Britishness scuttled the plans. Until recently, even the Gershwin estate did not have a copy of the book for the piece to match orchestrations that were found in the now infamous Secaucus warehouse.

Miller, an intrepid soul, tracked down the script for Primrose among the papers of the now-defunct Lord Chamberlain’s office at the British Library, and it from this text and score that Miller has created the concert version of Primrose that is currently being presented by Musicals Tonight!.

The labyrinthine plot of Primrose revolves around a trio of young lovers and their sparring with the older generation. The title comes from the heroine of a novel being written by one of the heroes in the musical, a simple country girl who is the antithesis of the Jazz-age flapper. In this reading, one sees that, for contemporary viewers, the story creaks just a bit, but there are so many glimmers of true wit in the Grossmith-Bolton book, one doesn’t mind. ("She took my engagement ring off and flung it...onto her right hand!" is only one such example.)

More important than the book is, obviously, the score. Gershwin was a busy man in 1924, premiering "Rhapsody in Blue" at the beginning of the year and concluding with the Broadway opening of Lady Be Good!, which includes "Fascinatin’ Rhythm." With this level of output (he also contributed to George White’s Scandals that year and worked on another musical as well), it is astounding that one finds such a wide range of music styles (Gilbert & Sullivan style operetta, nascent jazz-age sounds and music of the East) in Primrose as well as the standard, "Naughty Baby."

Beyond this number, three of the most delightful numbers in the musical were written for British comedian of the day Leslie Hansen - "The Mophams," "Mary Queen of Scots" and "That New Fangled Mother of Mine." Here, they are delivered handsomely by Gavin Esham. The score also boasts the ironic "Berkley Square and Kew" (in which one couple sings of their intent to have a "modern" marriage and live apart), which is delivered shrewdly by Cristin Mortenson and Jeremy Leiner. Another gem in this rich and almost through-composed piece is "Some Far Away Someone" which is given a beautifully melancholic rendering by Mortenson.

For Primrose, Gershwin also wrote and orchestrated music for a comic ballet which is unheard and unseen here. This poses something of a problem as one supposes that ballet contained some of the exposition necessary to make the musical’s third act intelligible. As it is, everyone ends up happily engaged or married, but how they got there is a little, to borrow from one of Primrose’s characters, "wonky".

What isn’t wonky or uncertain is that Primrose now deserves a full-blown presentation with full orchestration. This latter comment is not meant to detract from Barbara Anselmi’s admirable musical direction from a lone piano for Musicals Tonight!; with a gift as rich as Primrose one can’t help but wanting more, even as one is thankful to Miller for this first-time glimpse/hearing.

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