February House is based on the book of the same name by Sherill Tippins, and concerns a short-lived artists' commune in Brooklyn Heights created by author/editor George Davis in the early 1940s. Residents included poet W. H. Auden, novelist Carson McCullers, composer Benjamin Britten, English tenor (and Britten's lover) Peter Pears, and, believe it or not, Gypsy Rose Lee.
Quite a crowd, huh? Add in the spectre of World War II, hanging like a heavy pall over the proceedings, and you have a situation rife with literary, political, and artistic possibilities. February House, however, leaves most of them unrealized. The show has music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, a book by Seth Bockley, and is directed by Davis McCallum, and all three show tremendous promise in crafting smart and challenging musical theater. As for the show at hand, I mostly sat hoping to be transported, inspired, provoked. And, for the most part, I kept waiting. I left the show mildly entertained, sporadically moved, but mostly encouraged by these very promising new voices. (February House is certainly far more engaging and artistically successful than The Blue Flower, which attempted to cover similar territory, but in a far more oblique and irritating way.)
If February House is short on profundity, it is certainly rich in characterization. Kahane and Bockley make these famous names deeply human, with touching moments of sincerity amid the artistic posturing. This is perhaps the most affecting in the interactions between Kristen Sieh as McCullers and Julian Fleisher as Davis. As McCullers sings a song about how she identifies and feels comfortable with the freaks at Coney Island, Davis lies at her feet, his platonically affectionate hand crawling playfully up her leg. Later in the show, Erik Lochtefeld as W.H. Auden sits at the foot of a day bed watching his college-age lover sleep, and sings movingly of this "awkward angel," another stirring combination of moment and performer. It is in these instances of effortless intimacy that the show finds its strength and its heart.