A while back I read a fascinating book, FEBRUARY HOUSE by Sherrill Tippins, about a short lived artists' commune in a ramshackle boarding house in Brooklyn just before Pearl Harbor. There lived an unlikely group of artists: Carson McCullers, WH Auden and his young lover Chester Kallman, Benjam Britten and Peter Pears, Erica Mann (political writer and daughter of Thomas Mann) and Gypsy Rose Lee. The leader of this crew was editor-novelist George Davis. This group was, for its time unconventional in every way. Auden/Kallman and Britten/Pears were gay couples, McCullers and Mann had an affair, Davis loved to troll the docks for sailors and Gypsy Rose Lee was . . .Gypsy Rose Lee.
I couldn't conceive of anyone turning this into a musical, but two young artists, composer-lyricist Gabriel Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley have done just that. Here is a musical theatre version of the start, middle and end of this noble experiment. Bockley's book focuses on the love lives of this interesting group. Kahane's music is not conventional show tune stuff. Occasionally we have something like a simple folk tune (usually for McCullers), but this is mostly a post Sondheim score sounding often more like a contemporary chamber opera than a musical. My impression is that Kahane is a more interesting composer than lyricist. The lyrics are often clumsy, but above all he is trying to avoid Broadway slickness. Occasionally the ensemble would sing lovely choral versions of parts of Auden poems. I wondered how a composer would try to write music for a character named Benjamin Britten. Does one try to imitate Britten? Kahane made the interesting choose to give Britten and Pears some of the most conventional music: a Gilbert and Sullivan duet, a mock operatic duet about bedbugs and the number that sounded most like a show tune for their farewell.
I had never heard of anyone in the cast, but they all acted and sang well. The Peter Pears even looked something like Pears. The women weren't cast as strongly as the men. Kristen Sieh (Carson McCullers) was a weak singer which was unfortunate as she has some of the best music. Kacie Sheik did not have Gypsy Rose Lee's wonderful alto voice. She is given a self-descriptive number, "A Little Brain," that, alas, is nowhere near as clever as Rodgers and Hart's classic depiction of Lee, "Zip" (PAL JOEY). The men were uniformly strong as actors and singers.
Davis MacCallum provided the simple, but effective staging and succeeded in creating an ensemble out of his young cast.
This was one of those shows I admired but didn't totally warm up to.
FEBRUARY HOUSE. New York Public Theatre Martinson Auditorium. May 13, 2012.