A few years back, lyricist and orchestrator Kahane read Sherill Tippins' book about the actual experiment in living which led a variety of artistic individuals to 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn. Call the circumstances idyllic or, if you will, utopian. Seth Bockley scripted the book for the show while Andy Boroson is musical director and pianist. Andy Stack sits beside the piano and plays guitar and banjo. The two visible musicians are very much integral components of the ensemble.
Riccardo Hernandez's set is perfect: the furnishings are drab in the boarding house and the design flavors but not does overwhelm. It is only natural to feel instantly transported from the current era to another time and place. Jess Goldstein's excellent outfits, too, are excellent and add to the atmosphere.
Davis McCallum, directing at Long Wharf's Stage II, allows each member of an eclectic group to establish him/herself; McCallum, however, is precise as he (and choreographer Danny Mefford) move actors to various spots on the rectangular stage.
February House is, to large measure, a play about relationships. The well-known Auden (Erik Lochtefeld) and poet/librettist Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively) comprise a couple. Composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and singer/organist Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) form another.
A vivacious spark is provided by actress Kristen Sieh who plays the delectably Southern Carson McCullers. Her husband Reeves (Ken Clark) is there, too, but Carson becomes involved with Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), who is German and very much a pro-active/anti-war voice.
The first act is upstaged by the appearance of sensuous Kacie Sheik as Gypsy Rose Lee. Dressed in radiant green, Gypsy is audacious, enticing and graceful as she injects spice and charm when entering with these words: "In days gone by, an average sort of man could cause a girl to sigh with pearl and Chinese fan. But now each gal wants something more from the love canal to the Jersey Shore ..." Use your imagination or, better yet, see for yourself.
The living arrangement is facilitated by George Davis (Julian Fleisher), a gay, compelling, likable impresario. He wants the mix of living and art to flourish yet is ironic and perceptive enough to realize that it all might be ephemeral. Fleisher's Davis (and the character is distinctively the actor's) begins and concludes the performance which, including intermission, runs fairly close to three hours in length. Davis is funny, flamboyant, and very much self-aware.
The plot of the show is not insignificant. For example, Auden and Britten are fervently creating Paul Bunyan, a folksy opera. McCullers is writing and writing when not dealing with her husband or affiliation with Mann. These are samplings.
February House distinguishes itself, though, through its music. This is anything but a standard Broadway book type of show. It would not be accurate to term it minimalist. The play becomes a showcase for the multi-skilled Kahane and Bockley to fully bring to life a very special two year period through affecting and detailed music and accompanying lyrics.
The songs are often bittersweet, as is, sometimes, the tone of the entire piece. Highlights include "A Room Come Together" with Fleisher, Sieh, Lochtefeld, and Shively. Sieh is solo on "Coney Island." "Wanderlust" features Hayes, Sieh, Lochtefeld, and Shively. The first act concludes as Fleisher is solo on "Goodnight to the Boardinghouse" and the evening ends with that number reprised by Fleisher and Sieh.
Kahane, classically trained and 30 years of age, brings catchy, lively, atypical compositions which are altogether wonderful. He moves to a minor key, one that some might find dissonant. This is entirely appropriate for 7 Middagh Street which was evidently not going to survive. The actual street, it is said, was "eliminated" when the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was constructed. February House, on the other hand, is a vibrant musical and one which should enjoy a long life in the theater. The show has great allure for those interested in any combination of the following: engaging live theater, skillfully written music and/or artistic people making a go of it as they lived with one anotherseven decades ago.
February House continues at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II in New Haven through March 18th. For tickets call (203) 787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org. The production will open at the Public Theater in New York on May 8th.
- Fred Sokol