Deep in the second act of “February House,” the new musical at the Public, an intellectual ecdysiast lying on the carpet says, “The play seemed like it was trying to make some big point, but I didn’t get it.” The same could be said for “February House.” Its stronger elements — particularly a sometimes-intriguing score by newcomer Greg Kahane — don’t nearly add up to a satisfying evening. In this tale of 1940s Brooklyn bohemia, the champagne cocktails are flat.
Fact-based story gives us nine authentic characters in search of a plot. In the early days of World War II, magazine editor George Davis (Julian Fleisher) establishes a communal boarding house in Brooklyn. Artistic types like Brit poet W.H. Auden and Brit composer Benjamin Britten are invited to move in and freely live with their lovers as husband-and-husband. On the distaff side come Southern novelist Carson McCullers, the German writer Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas), and Minsky headliner Gypsy Rose Lee, the aforementioned stripper.
Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley interweave these lives as the group struggles to support themselves and their home (described as a combination of Xanadu and Manderley-after-the-fall). With ficitonal characters, this setup would allow interesting developments, and with borrowed characters — Cary Grant, Greta Garbo and Harpo Marx, say — it would generate even more audience interest. Few are likely to care, though, about the less-than-scintillating tribulations of Britten and tenor Peter Pears.
The lack of action, alas, boxes the obviously talented Kahane into a corner. Much of his score is promising; his work might be described as a combination of Marc Blitzstein and Adam Guettel. But with little drama other than how-will-we-pay-the-bills, Kahane is called upon to write some two dozen songs that magnify the problem. Thus, we get items like an extended art song about bedbugs. (Four of the songs are set to poems by Auden.)
The book meanders along, with the lack of focus not helped by director Davis McCallum. Design by Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Mark Barton (lights) is effective, especially when the upstage wall is subtly transformed into the Brooklyn Bridge. Another asset is the composer’s six-piece orchestration, which weaves a spell with its mix of guitar (or sometimes banjo) with cello and two clarinets.
Fleisher makes a game attempt at bringing life to the central character, but carrying this show would require superhuman efforts. Kristen Sieh makes an arresting McCullers, while the performances of Stanley Bahorek (Britten), Erik Lochtefeld (Auden), and Ken Barnett and A. J. Shively as their respective young men are more enjoyable than the written characters.
The first commission of the Public’s Music Theater Initiative, “February House” is a potentially inviting structure. The foundation, alas, proves unsteady.