By Jennifer Farrar
Once upon a time, there was a rundown Victorian house in Brooklyn Heights filled with some of the greatest literary and musical talent of the 20th century. But this is not a fairy tale. The true story of this early 1940s international literary commune has been beautifully fictionalized for the stage in a fresh, humorous musical tapestry called "February House."
The imaginative, beguiling production that opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at The Public Theater is movingly sung and acted. The first commission of the Public's new musical-theater initiative, it contains diverse music and clever lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, and a wry, wit-drenched book by Seth Bockley.
A lilting, compelling score mixes elements of opera, jazz, popular music of the '40s, and blues, along with a folk-music vibe, and is performed by a six-member onstage band led by Andy Boroson on keyboard. Memorable phrases and fragments linger long afterward.
Our lovable host for this tuneful trip down a literary memory lane is fiction editor George Davis, (an elegant turn by Julian Fleisher, both campy and sincere). Georgey wistfully muses about some of his American and European friends who came and went in the artistic boardinghouse he established, hoping to create a family. ("When a house comes together/you are not alone.") They include Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears, Erika Mann and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote a murder mystery while living there.
Directed with sweeping, thoughtful flair by Davis McCallum, the production is visually and aurally rich. The lyrics and dialogue flow naturally together, often with overlapping conversations and choruses of song that reflect the cluster of competing intellects converged in this unusual, often-boisterous household.
Davis blithely pulls the residents of the house together in Act 1, envisioning "an empire of artists... a writer's menagerie" in the sprightly number, "A Room Comes Together." Slightly older father-figure W.H. Auden (a complex, sensitive characterization by Erik Lochtefeld), known to his housemates as Wystan, moves in to be with his youthful lover, Chester, (A. J. Shively,) for whom Lochtefeld sings a lovely, wistful refrain, "Awkward Angel" ("evermore in flight away from me/and yet such joy.")
Kristen Sieh imbues Carson McCullers with a pixieish frailty, combined with spirited determination and zest. Sieh has perfected an unusual Southern drawl for this role, and her wry delivery adds humor to already-funny lines like "I'm very open-minded despite my accent." Her clear, delicate voice is well-matched to solos like the quirky confessional "Coney Island."
Together with German refugee Erika Mann, (presented as brisk and serious-minded by Stephanie Hayes), Sieh shares a rollicking duet called "Wanderlust," about an escapist road trip they might take together around America, "driving toward those amber waves of grain." In counterpoint, lovesick Wystan warbles that he could find happiness within just one room, if only Chester was in it: "The world outside has gone insane/but here is love, I know its name."
Benjamin Britten, one of the great composers of the 20th century, is portrayed here at age 25 as a comedic, near-Tweedledee figure by a memorably funny Stanley Bahorek. Stiffly boyish, Bahorek's Benjy runs around hand in hand with Peter (portrayed as equally goofy by Ken Barnett.) They introduce themselves with "Shall We Live Here?," a sweet song in which they gradually realize they needn't pretend to be brothers any more, and perform a hilariously melodramatic, drawn-out duet about bedbugs in Act 2.
Kahane slips in some discordant chords in a satirical wink to Britten's famous atonal style, and includes Auden's poetry in his lyrics. Parts of "Funeral Blues" are stirringly performed by Lochtefeld's heartbroken Wystan, and lines from "Refugee Blues" are affectingly repeated several times by the ensemble as a haunting chorus.
Kacie Sheik interjects lightness and femininity as Gypsy, performing a tasteful striptease for Georgey's wild rent party, and then moving in so he can help her finish her murder mystery. Another ironic commentary on the cultural appreciation for music and literature: despite all the intellectual capital in the house, the exotic dancer is the only one with any money.
Things darken in Act 2, as politics and the increasing horror of World War II inevitably overtake everyday life, one harsh reality being represented by the intrusion of Carson's unpleasant husband, Reeves (Ken Clark, perfectly boorish.) With complex lighting by Mark Barton, the lovely vintage furnishings in Riccardo Hernandez's economical set design and Jess Goldstein's costumes complete the nostalgia-tinged, bohemian period atmosphere.
Historical consultant credit is given to Sherill Tippins, who wrote a 2005 book titled "February House" about the unusual household. As the makeshift family finally scatters, the melancholy "Foundation Breathes a Loss," casts a lovely glow as Georgey sings, "They came/it worked/their beautiful dreams were bright colored brilliant."