Long Wharf's FEBRUARY HOUSE well worth checking into.
After my review of The Addams Family hit the paper last week, I received my first “you got it wrong” letter from a faithful Journal-Inquirer reader. First, I want to assure all J-I readers that I am (generally) not a Snidely Whiplash twisting my moustache with glee over a poor (or in that case, mediocre) review. With over 20 years of experience as a theatre professional and 30 years of experience as a theatre-goer, I feel I have something to offer on the side of an informed opinion. And that’s all reviews are -- opinion.
In an age when our time is limited and theatre tickets can be expensive, I am happy to give a “thumbs-up” to something that is worth your time and money. At up to $80 a pop, The Addams Family did not strike me as a sound investment, at least not for my money. The reader who wrote to me felt his money was well spent and I’m glad he and his family enjoyed it.
An example of where I think your money and time would be very well spent is playing at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. The brand new musical February House is everything that The Addams Family should have been in my estimation: cohesive, witty, tuneful and memorable.
Unlike The Addams Family, February House is about real people. Like The Addams Family, it is set in a home that is a universe unto itself. Residing within its walls were some of the most significant cultural figures of their day: author Carson McCullers, poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, among others. An experiment of communal living for hand-picked artists, the real February House was located at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights from 1940 to 1941.
The brainchild of George Davis, here played by New York fixture Julian Fleisher, February House was a self-contained environment where some of the most intriguing, and mismatched, figures of the 20th century could inspire one another. What Davis failed to recognize is that many artists work best in solitude while others are needy requiring attention and approbation. Naturally, this utopia was destined to fail in some senses while creating a never-to-be-duplicated meeting of giants.
First and foremost, the book by Seth Bockley is incredibly smart. Layering the intellectual and artistic pursuits of February House’s residents on top of the fact that some of the occupants may be hiding from the rising tide of World War II and bad relationships, this makes the crumbling house both a home for heroes and cowards. The music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane are melodic and complex, humorous and, in many instances, deeply penetrating. Long Wharf audiences are witnessing the birth of intriguing talents to watch.
The residents of the commune are portrayed beautifully. Kristen Sieh is stellar as Carson McCullers, the one resident of the house who truly embraces George Davis’ spirit of the adventure. Erik Lochtefeld is touchingly haughty and vulnerable at the same time as W.H. Auden. Stanley Bahorek and Ken Barnett as the uptight Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears are equally fabulous and funny (minus the dreadful “Bed Bugs” number that kicks off Act 2). Two of the best performances are rendered by Stephanie Hayes as the agitator Erika Mann and Kacie Sheik as the giddy, tart Gypsy Rose Lee.
Only Julian Fleisher as the ringmaster of this erudite circus fails to hit all the right notes with his character. Presumably Davis had to be quite the persuasive pied piper to lure these giants into this experimental venture. Although showy at turns, Fleisher needs to amp up the charisma. Overall, the show’s first act is stronger than the second and therein lies the work for further development as the show heads to New York’s Public Theatre.
At the end of the day, is February House worth the up to $65 price tag? In my estimation, yes. Is it more enjoyable than The Addams Family? To me, yes. Are there people who will go and hate it even though I loved it? Yes. And that’s okay with me.