In a theater season dominated by musicals adapted from movies, it is nice to see an original new musical, but originality alone is no guarantee of a fully realized and satisfying entertainment. February House, the new musical opening at the Public Theater, is indeed original. It has its assets, including intelligence and an impressive score, but it is also uneven. While the musical has moments that are close to magical, it ultimately left me wishing it had delivered more than it did.
February House is inspired by real-life events. In 1940, flamboyant editor George Davis took a house in Brooklyn and turned it into a bohemian commune for writers and artists, including such icons as Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden, and Gypsy Rose Lee. The musical depicts life at what was called February House -- because so many of those artists had February birthdays -- during the time they lived together, starting in 1940 and continuing into 1941; the play makes us very aware that the house served as refuge from society, and the growing war in Europe looms large over the residents. The show deals with love and art, plus responsibility and activism in a time of war.
At its best moments, such as the end of Act One and the closing scene in the show, it casts a lovely spell. Unfortunately, it never explores its themes with the needed depth or focus to make for a consistently compelling musical. The residents had their happy moments, but the musical doesn't adequately capture those moments of joy. Most importantly, the sense of yearning among the characters and some of their underlying struggles should result in more poignancy, but that emotion does not resonate as it should. The musical is also ten to fifteen minutes too long; on occasions, it goes off track, particularly in an unnecessary song about bed bugs that opens Act Two. Moments like that undermine some of its many worthy attributes.
Nevertheless, this is often still an intriguing musical, and the creators show tremendous promise. Gabriel Kahane, who wrote the music and lyrics, and book writer Seth Bockley met while attending Brown. Kahane is a singer-songwriter, and February House is his first musical. There is richness in some of his melodies, along with intelligent lyrics. The score can be challenging, but it is a quality work. Bockley's book does a good job introducing us to the nine characters we see in the musical. However, it comes up short when it comes to plot and dramatic tension. There just is not enough of either. The relationship between Auden and his younger lover, Chester Kallman, is one of the plot threads, but it is not enough to carry the evening. Nor is the writing of Britten and Auden's opera, Paul Bunyan, or Britten's relationship with Peter Pears. McCullers is an interesting character to watch, but is not given enough of a real story. The musical focuses most on George Davis, Auden, and McCullers, but has not yet found the right voice to tell their stories in a dramatic enough fashion. Julian Fleisher, Erik Lochtefeld, and Kristen Sieh are all fine as Davis, Auden, and McCullers, with Sieh in particular shining. The rest of the ensemble cast does strong work, with A. J. Shively standing out as Auden's young lover and partner.
Because of its originality, its melodies, and the underlying potential of the story and characters, February House is a musical I wanted to love. Responses the night I attended the show were varied. There were more walkouts than I usually see, but there were also people who responded strongly to the material and admired it greatly. I'm somewhere in between – I admire the ambition and some of the execution, but overall feel February House still needs more artistry, drama, and emotion in how the story of its very talented and creative residents is presented. - James Miller
Photo (Julian Fleisher and Kristen Sieh) by Joan Marcus/Public Theater.
The Public Theater is at 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan.
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.