Carson McCullers, Erika Mann and Gypsy Rose Lee are sharing a house in Brooklyn. No, it’s not the theme for a costume ball at Sarah Lawrence. It’s a taste of February House, the heady new chamber musical at The Public (by way of Long Wharf) that may still be in need of some sharpening and editing to match its lofty ambitions, but still offers some refreshingly high-minded moments of musical theatre.
Seth Bockley’s book is based on the true story of how in 1940, Harper’s Bazaar fiction editor George Davis (Julian Fleisher) fell in love with a dilapidated old home in Brooklyn Heights and transformed it into an outer-boroughs artist colony where an eclectic group of prominent talents could cut themselves off from the troubles overseas and create.
The makeshift family, many of whom happened to have been born in February, includes composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and poet W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), as they collaborate on writing an operetta about Paul Bunyan. Each is accompanied by his respective romantic partner, tenor Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) and student Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively). Novelist Carson McCullers (a captivatingly wide-eyed Kristen Sieh) is there, struggling through her second novel and also struggling through alcoholism, troubles with her husband (Ken Clark) and the sexual temptation of German cabaret singer and magazine editor Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes). When money gets tight, strip-tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik, nailing every innuendo), at the height of her fame and pay checks, contributes more than her share to join the retreat in order to finish her book, The G-String Murders.
But aside from the expected sequence of the group being formed, their achievement of notoriety and eventual disbanding, Bockley’s plotless snapshot approach to the characters isn’t enough to sustain the musical for its lengthy span of well over two and a half hours. There are concerns over the war in Europe – particularly distressing to the British characters – some musings about a bohemian paradise and the obligatory sexual openness, but while director Davis McCallum’s production is suitably atmospheric, the musical has its sluggish moments.
Composer/lyricist Gabriel Kahane offers some attractive songs, but his score would benefit from a fuller plot that would help dictate song placement and subject matter. Many of them exist in isolated moments that have little to do with anything that came before or will matter after; the low point being a mock operatic duet for Pears and Britten at their discovery of bedbugs. Faring far better are a confrontation about the purpose of art during wartime, a wistful fantasy of following one’s wanderlust and, for Gypsy Rose Lee, a bawdy performance number about getting turned on by a man’s brains. (It zips along nicely, if you know what I mean.)
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Julian Fleisher and Kristen Sieh; Bottom: Kacie Sheik.
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