Music and Lyrics by Gabriel Kahane
Book by Seth Bockley
Directed by Davis McCallum
Public Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

There's no question that The February House has its charms; the question is whether its charms are enough. As it's an "art house musical," it can go either way, depending on the audience member's sensibility and tolerance for the kind of rarefied chamber atmosphere and minimal-to-negligible narrative drive that are coin of the realm with such enterprises. To wit:

                        This particular art house entry tells the story…well, quite literally of an art house; of a Brooklyn Heights mansion that was between 1940 and 1941 repurposed by a fellow named George Davis (Julian Fleischer) into a boarding house for creators—among them composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek), Britten's lover, singer Peter Pears (Ken Barnett), poet W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefield), writer-activist Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), entertainer/budding novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, who she helped pay the bills (Kacie Shiek), and—front and center as George's favorite—Carson McCullers (Kristin Sieh). Eventually called The February House, the place was meant as a place in which to create and, if such was the need, to enjoy the company of a same-sex partner without pretense.

                        As dramatized by librettist Seth Bockley, the premise is appealing and the personalities have the requisite sparkle; but because there's no overarching objective (the establishment of the house happens fairly early), February House has to depend on the strength of particularizing the process of the personalities gathering, trying to co-exist and drifting apart; all of which happens with a predictable inevitability, because the various personalities play out their apparent pathologies with no reversal that isn't evident early on. To cite but two threads (and forgive the spoilers—you can skip the rest of this paragraph if you truly wish to avoid them—but truly there's nothing much to spoil): the older, possessive Auden is destined to drive away his younger lover (A.J. Shively); and when Auden's former wife Ms Mann shows up, there's no doubt whatever that she'll soon start a steamy affair with the impressionable Ms McCullers, for whom February House is a retreat from her deep-south home and husband (Ken Clark); and no doubt that the affair is but a temporary refuge, and that she’ll be drawn back to Where She Truly Belongs in the fullness of time. And with the ends of things thus built into the beginnings, the musical can only offer character study; and that's a very static menu for a musical to offer.

                        As for the score by composer-lyricist Garbriel Kahane, the music delivers an interesting, sometimes too-precious amalgam of tonal mid-20th century modern "legit" composition and country. (A metaphor perhaps for a place that would bring together the likes of Britten and McCullers under a single roof). The score does deliver muscle (in a performance tune for Gypsy Rose Lee to strip to, among a few other places) but not often and not enough of it to sustain excitement, so the musical energy tends to be “soft” and contemplative. The lyrics are curious on a level of technical craft, because all of them are well-architectured and deliver their concentrated bits of drama with admirable clarity and actability; and clearly Mr. Kahane has a command of rhyme and even employs a number of cleverly wrought multiple-rhyme schemes. But at random moments—not key moments that might make a point, such as Lynn Ahrens’ single and extraordinarily nervy time-and-place setting false rhyme from Ragtime: “There were gazebos but there were no Negros”he drops perfect rhyme for near rhyme, sometimes in the damndest places: surely, for verisimilitude alone, a performance piece for Gypsy Rose Lee should not, in its repeated title refrain, rhyme “game” with “brain.” And when your cast of characters are all sophisticated people of letters and music? What’s up with that?

                        But there’s something even more compromising to their effect, and one must cite it as working in league with the libretto. No one ever has a hidden agenda, or spends time fooling him- or herself into believing one thing is true when another is clearly in operation (think Henry Higgins insisting “I’m an ordinary man”—as sincere and perfect a bit of self-delusion as exists in the canon). Subsequently there’s virtually no subtext; characters sing exactly what’s on their minds, exactly on the surface, so the audience never get to contribute their own intuition and actively engage toward a sense of revelation, or experiencing a layered and rich psychology (which is paradoxical for this cast of characters; for all the intricacy and nuance of their respective locutions, the lack of subtext renders them transparent). The songs, most of them, expand upon the states of being that are, as I say, already apparent, and thus too attenuate time spent on things we already know. The good news: Who says ther show is finished? Theatre is live, February House will surely have other venues, and most of the redundancy can be cleared away in the next draft, if the authors are meticulous about spotting the overt and hidden (i.e. where we implicitly understand something that needn't be spelled out later, what I call a "security leak") places where it lies—and the show would subsequently be tightened by an easy and needed 30 minutes at least). The less fortunate news: The absence of subtext appears to be built into the very matrix. And I’m not sure how you overcome that.

                        If the direction by Davis McCallum is any indication, perhaps you just try to count on the innate charm of your cast. He does, he guides them with a sure hand, and they carry February House with about as much panache, sensitivity and humor as anyone could.

                        All in all, in its current incarnation, February House is a nice place to visit…but, to paraphrase the famous conclusion of that expression, it’s not quite ready to be lived in…

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