Long Wharf Stage II, New Haven
The concept is there. The history is fascinating. But, alas, the musical falters. We are speaking of “February House,” the new show enjoying its “world premiere” at Long Wharf’s Stage II. The production is staged in conjunction with The Public Theater.
Composer Gabriel Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley have reached back into time to create the piece. Based on actual fact (and in turn a literary biography by Sherill Tippins), “February House” is set in 1940, when Europe was engulfed in wartime turmoil and the United States was about to enter the war. At that time a group of literary giants were housed together in Brooklyn Heights. Writer/editor George Davis had rented a decrepit old Victorian house and proceeded to lure such luminaries as Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee and others. He formed a commune of sorts, which would have its brief moment of glory.
How could this show go wrong? The book, in fact, is intriguing, though it tends to skirt the surface. But it offers these several characters in all their quirks--how they struggle to survive, how they interact, and why they ultimately go their separate ways. The homosexual—and straight—relationships are explored with sensitivity. So far, so good. But, alas, the tunes and lyrics are ho-hum. So much more could have been made of this fascinating material.
On the plus side, however, are the performers themselves. Director Davis McCallum puts them through their paces. Outstanding is Erik Lochtefeld, who gives a nuanced, sensitive rendering of the Auden character. Stephanie Hayes gives a strong, jolting portrayal of Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas Mann), and Kacie Sheik is smashing as Gypsy Rose Lee (particularly in her strip number). Julian Fleisher has considerable charm as George, playing host, landlord, and mother to the group, and Ken Clark gives a brief but dynamic appearance as Reeves McCullers. Kristen Sieh, on the other hand, is certainly a Carson McCullers look-alike, but gobbles her lines. (In fact, every one’s lines are lost when they sing.) But others on the scene, with solid performances, are A. J. Shively as Chester Kallman (Auden’s lover), Stanley Bahorek as Benjamin Britten, and Ken Barnett as Peter Pears.
“February House,” we are given to understand, is slated for a New York opening. Before that happens, we would assume, a thorough rewrite would have to be scheduled. “February House” may yet prove to be worthy of its promise.
-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 25, 2012