February House presents an interesting group of famous characters set in an incredible period of time but somehow this musical loses track of its own trajectory and ends up a messy bundle rather than a coherent strong new work. It is a new musical with music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, book by Seth Bockley, and directed by David McCallum. It is focused on the group of creative types who shared a Brooklyn boarding house in 1940-1941.
George Davis (Julian Fleisher), a flamboyant former magazine editor and writer, while picking up male prostitutes at the Brooklyn docks, stumbles upon the rundown Brooklyn boarding house at 7 Middagh Street and decides to rent it for his commune of creative types. His closest friend is Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh) who is already a well-known author but is desperate to get away from her drunkard of a husband Reeves (Ken Clark). Next to join the fraternity is W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld) with his husband Chester Kallman (A.J. Shivley). Rounding out the group is Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) refugees from closeted life on Long Island. Later, Auden's wife, Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes) arrives from Europe to join them and Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik) moves in to write her novel G-String Murders and help the impoverished artists with the rent.
Tensions arise over the war in Europe as Erika pushes the ex-pats from Europe (Britten, Pears, Auden) to take a stand against the war. Then there are the bed bugs, a broken water heater and romantic problems that plague the group. The plot becomes burdened by the number of characters, the numerous songs they sing but mostly suffers from the lack of any strong narrative through line. The tension over the war seemed promising for a time as the galvanizing theme of the work (and reminiscent of last season's new musical The Blue Flower) but it eventually falls away and story meanders away from it losing the momentum it created. The plot forays into the production of Paul Bunyan the Opera by Britten, Pears and Auden were distracting and added up to nothing.
The cast had potential but I felt like they were lost in the material they were given. There were too many characters and despite their best efforts the cast could not give life to them. I liked Kristen Sieh as McCullers but she seemed to have a lot of songs to sing and no
voice to sing them. Stanley Bahorek and Ken Barnett had some nice duets
to start and then sadly ended up with an awful bedbug song. Erik Lochtefeld was a mournful Auden but his relationship (one of the more explored of the ensemble) still felt incomplete and underwritten. Kacie Sheik's Gypsy Rose Lee was a breath of fresh air but she was severely underused.
Eventually the incestuousness of the group becomes its undoing--in the musical more than in life. I tired of the repetition of complaints of the group. Like the whiny denizens of Rent, at some point I just stopped caring about their problems. I disliked our narrator and fearless leader George Davis so much that I was not particularly invested in whether his "vision" succeeded or failed. It starts to feel claustrophobic (which may have been the intention) and by the end my patience for a work trying to find its legs just ran out.
There is a great kernel of an idea here but the musical felt more like a workshop than a piece that was ready to fly. It's a subject I am interested in but the execution just needs a lot more work. Part of me (the part which loves straight plays over musicals) wondered why this was a musical. It seemed like a gargantuan undertaking as a play. Adding the music to it seemed to slow down everything rather than flesh it out. The orchestrations were thin, tinny and banjo-y giving the entire work a bluegrass feel to it: a very strange musical connotation for a musical about European ex-pats, Brooklyn and the 1940's.
There was no satisfying conclusion to any of the tendrils of the story. I wondered if the creative team felt beholden to the truth and therefore they got locked into the wanderings of people's lives rather than a dramatically structured narrative. Life, as we all know, is a lot less narratively satisfying than art.