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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
All these elements are indeed in place in February House, currently being presented at the Public Theater's Martinson Hall in association with the Long Whart Theater. It's a delicate piece that's not going to please those for whom musical theater heaven is a show built around a book offering up a clearly defined plot with a happy ending, toe-tapping, hummable tunes, sung and danced by a cast featuring at least a few well known performers. Instead February House is aimed at fans of musicals like John LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See and The Wild Party (also presented by the Public,), Jim and Ruth Bauer/s The Blue Flower, Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George. Gabriel Kahane's comic and occasionally dissonant duets, love songs and wistful little musical essays have flashes of all those composers charms.
The show is based on Sherill Tippins's 2005 book February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America. Theatergoers unfamiliar with this era and its literary, artistic and musical celebrities would be well advised to prepare for it by readding Tippins' carefully researched and enjoyable account of the brief period just before the United States entered World War II when a shabby brownstone at 7 Mittagh Street in Brooklyn became a Yaddo-like boarding house. (it's available at Amazon for as little as $5). The Bohemian commune documented in that book was the brainchild of George Davis, a flamboyant literary editor, who finding himself at loose ends after losing his job as Harper Bazaar's fiction editor, rented the house and became landlord and mother hen to the tenants, most of whom were, like him, homosexual, or bisexual.
Seth Bockley, the show's book writer, had to streamline Tippins' more detailed history, especially since it had to accommodate the music. Thus, while many of New York's intelligentsia visited the commune (one of whom, Anais Nin, named it February House because so many birthdays fell during that month), the focus is therefore on a handful of residents and their interaction. While performers and designers have done a nice job of capturing the flavor of the period and this unusual establishment, Buckley has been somewhat less successful in makingt he page to stage transformation work as a consistently dynamic story. Oddly, it is both too long and too sketchy.
Since the Long Wharf premiere, the music has been enriched by expanding the band from two to six musicians. Some careful trimming of dialogue and songs would have helpe to make it a less rambling affair and downplayed the music's at times sounding repetitious. February House is thus a tasty if somewhat too insubstantial slice of twentieth century cultural history.
There are no big ticket selling names in the cast list — Julian Fleisher's who by virtue of his role as the man who cooked up the idea for this Brooklyn-based artistic dream, is best known as a nightclub performer (He did play a talking Cat character in Coraline). Director Davis McCallum has seen to it that he and the performers embrace their 1940s personas with moody authenticity. Their outfits by Jess Goldstein are fabulously 1940s and their singing is accompanied, but never drowned out, by the excellent sextet of musicians inconspicuously positioned at the rear of the stage.
Initially, some of the assorted pieces of furniture Ricardo Hernandez has scattered over the large playing area are covered as if someone were moving in or out. This establishes. both the hopeful beginning as well as the filled with regrets ending. The covers come off as George (Julian Fleisher) and three of the pivotal characters sing "A Room Comes Together," transforming a riff about interior design into a wishful dream for that furniture to make a family, ("an empire of writers/a writer's menagerie"). That family will consist of Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), and McCullers ( Kristen Sieh) who will be working on her follow up to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Sieh is quite touching as the hard-drinking "Southern Belle who burns so bright." Kacie Sheik as the " literary pin-up who is quite a sight" delightfully displays her pinup credentials and intellectual bent in the first act's catchy "A Little Brain" (which also calls for another round of applause for costume designer Goldstein).
The probably less well known members of the group are Auden's paramour, Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively), Reeves McCullers (Ken Clark), the husband from whom Carson is estranged); also Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), novelist Thomas Mann's political activist/cabaret artist daughter. The glamorous redhead is Auden's wife, an in-name only arrangement to help her get out of Nazi Germany. She also becomes McCuller's lover who in "Wanderlust" suggests that they travel together to spread her warning about the dangerous world situation.
The tenants surprisingly relied on for comic releif are classical composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and his domestic and artistic partner, the tenor Peter Pears (Ken Barnett). They look and sound as if they'd just stepped out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. While Bahorek and Barnett are amusing, I think Britten and Pears would turn over in their graves if they heard their stand-ins in February House singing a campy duet about one of many of the under-funded house's most unpleasant problems, bed bugs. The show would benefit from losing that "A Certain Itch" ditty and taking this pair right to their cheerful departure for California "where the sky is never grey/we'll eat yogurt and o yoga/and we'll take a swim/almost every day."
Kahane's has a nice flair for lyrics whose rhymes are never forced and peppered with witty allusions, such as George's conducting a mock marriage for Auden and Kallman with "By the authority invested in me by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, I pronounce you man and man!" Naturally, the several songs using Auden's poems as lyrics are even better.
You can still read McCuller's books, Auden's poems, hear Britten's music. and read Gypsy Rose Lee's various books or catch the occasional productions of the msical adaptation of her memoir, Gypsy.. However, forget about going back to 7 Middagh Street which was razed long ago to make room for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — but Ricardo Hernandez's recreation of that house and Kahane's songs offer a pleasantly melodic alternative.
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