February House at Long Wharf Theatre -- A Well-Constructed Production
By Amy J. Barry
In February House, premiering at Long Wharf Theatre, famous artists -- literary and musical -- come together to live in a small house in Brooklyn at the onset of World War II where they discuss art and ideas, share successes and failures, find friendship, love, and heartbreak -- and party hard.
It’s a wonderful premise for a musical play, based on a true story. And Long Wharf, in collaboration with New York’s Public Theater, delivers it in a magical, understated, and heartfelt production.
The book by Seth Bockley and music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane take their inspiration from a literary biography by Sherill Tippins published in 2005: 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. Tippins acted as historical consultant during the development of the musical.
Deftly directed by Davis McCallum, the play opens with George Davis, former fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar, played by Julian Fleisher, standing in the empty boarding house, which later became known as February House because so many of the artists who lived there were born in February. He reminisces about the many brilliant creative types he had unexpectedly brought together, gesturing toward the living room’s solitary Queen Anne chair that they all once occupied.
The various characters start making their entrances, the sheets are pulled off the marvelous art deco furniture, and we are back in Brooklyn between 1940-41.
Describing himself as a “confused homosexual,” Fleisher is a good fit for the role of Georgie -- as his friends fondly refer to him -- a housemother of sorts -- trying to satisfy the different needs of the disparate group.
There is sensitive, eccentric Southern novelist Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh); moody, aging poet Wystan Hugh (W.H.) Auden (Erik Lochtefeld); and his on-and-off-again lover, the flirtatious handsome young poet Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively).
Add to the mix the newly arrived delightful British couple and music collaborators composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and tenor Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) who describe themselves as “quietly queer” and are writing a musical about Paul Bunyan; burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik) who wrote The G-String Murders under George’s tutelage; German actress/writer Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), who married Auden to obtain British citizenship and flee the Nazis -- and falls in lust with Carson; and Carson’s ex-husband writer Reeves McCullers (Ken Clark), who occasionally drops by.
The clashing personalities and complex relationships between all the homosexual and bisexual characters might be too distracting if it weren’t for Kahane’s exquisite musical score gently gathering everyone and everything together.
The talented cast sings the simple and elegant mix of operetta, jazz, Broadway, and strains of folk/pop, never breaking out into song but moving naturally into each number, seamlessly melding dialogue and lyrics.
“When a room comes together, it’s a home” and “Good night to the boarding house,” are delightful tunes, creating a feeling of safety, warmth and community within the house—a welcoming, understated structure designed by Riccardo Hernandez -- while the looming war is palpable outside its four walls.
“A Little Brain,” a clever little ditty, features Gypsy in a seductive strip tease during a party to raise money to pay the starving artists’ rent.
“Ride out the light of the year” is another perfectly pitched song sung by the ensemble as snow softly falls on the city.
True to life, the “utopian” existence is not sustainable. The characters disband to pursue different dreams in different places and George is left standing next to the empty chair, singing a last goodbye to the boardinghouse as it all comes full circle.
February House is at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through March 18, and at the Public Theater in New York May 8-June 10. For tickets and more information call 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org.
This review appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers March 8, 2012 and online at www.Zip06.com.