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Diana Barth

February House
A Commune, Sweet and Sour

Ken Barnett, Stanley Bahorek, and Erik Lochtefeld in "February House." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
Opened: May 22, 2012
Tickets: $40 - $80
(212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
Running time: 2 l/2 hours
Closes: June 10, 2012
Schedule: Tues -Thurs 7:00 pm, Fri & Sat 8 pm, Sat & Sun 2 pm, Sun 7 pm
Reviewed by Diana Barth May 19, 2012

Based on a nonfiction book by Sherrill Tippin, "February House" has been transformed into a unique and often enchanting new musical (music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane; book by Seth Bockley) about an actual artists commune that existed in Brooklyn, New York, for only one year--from 1940 to 1941.

The doyen of the odd assemblage was George Davis (Julian Fleisher), who’d recently lost his job as fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Not to be daunted, he found a ramshackle but lovely old Victorian house at 7 Middagh Street and proceeded to furnish it with individualistic bohemian taste (quirky, unmatching furniture items, courtesy set designer Riccardo Hernandez) and to tenant it with talented literary lights of the day. Major British poet W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld) was present, along with his muse, the aspiring poet/librettist Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively).

Another unusual couple comprised composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and singer/organist Peter Pears (Ken Barnett). The duo serves almost as a kind of Gilbert-and-Sullivan comedy relief, as they make their various comments and complaints, usually in song. But Britten had good reason to be present, as he was collaborating with Auden, as librettist, on an operetta about the legendary figure, Paul Bunyan. It was finally written, and was reviewed, alas, by the noted (unseen) music specialist Virgil Thomson.

The young Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh) was working assiduously on her second novel, after already having achieved fame for her first. February House (so-named by some due to the fact that several tenants had birthdays in that month) made a good escape hatch for McCullers, as her marriage to husband Reeves McCullers (Ken Clark) was on shaky ground. That, however, didn’t stop him from often barging in at February House, annoying Carson and interfering with her train of thought.

But Carson found newcomer Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes) of interest. Erika, the daughter of Thomas Mann, the noted German novelist, was very pro-active in the antiwar movement, which fact led to her ultimate decision regarding whether or not to remain with the commune.

Kacie Sheik and Julian Fleisher. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A late appearance by noted strip tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee (Katie Sheik) spices things up. Sheik is personally sensuous and enticing and very lovely in her various outfits (courtesy costume designer Jess Goldstein, who has done a terrific job throughout). Lee has joined the group because she is hard at work writing her novel, “The G-String Murders,” with George as her editor. She also makes it clear that she is a serious author, expressing in one of her songs: “If you want to get my hair in a tousle, Talk to me about Bertrand Russsell. Jewelry sure won’t do the trick, Red fox fur just makes me sick.” Well, so she says.

Interplay of the various characters is always interesting. There are attractions, upsets, warmth, and coldness. For a long while George manages to hold things together very winningly (with Julian Fleisher being inspired casting). However, as time goes on, money becomes scarce, and the necessities: food, the rent, utilities, the piano tuner, liquor, etc., are not being supplied. According to the text, it is Gypsy Rose Lee who pays the lion’s share of the expenses and helps keep things afloat.

Some titles of the offbeat and refreshing songs include “Light Upon the Hill,” “Shall We Live Here?” “Wanderlust,” and “California,” the last-named sung by Benjamin Britten (Benjy) and Peter. That’s where the pair will flee, “where the sun always shines.”

Accompanying music is played by a combo of six musicians rather than by a full orchestra: keyboard, banjo, guitar, a couple of strings, some reed instruments, lending a kind of wistfulness. A sort of Kurt Weill-ish sound?

Underlying throughout is a sense of bittersweetness, as all participants long for a sense of community. But it just couldn’t last. Then, too, the shadow of World War II was impinging.

Direction by Davis McCallum richly conveys the intimacy and spirit of the piece, supported by ideal casting. It’s really unfair to name individuals where ensemble playing is totally present, but performances by Fleisher, Lochtefeld, Sieh, and Sheik have stuck with me.

Don’t look for 7 Middagh Street. It was eventually torn down to make room for the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway.

Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication.

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