February House: Review Roundup

Julian Fleisher
and Kristen Sieh

The new Off-Broadway musical February House, based on Sherill Tippins’ 2005 book, opened last week at the Public to mixed but somewhat positive reviews. Below is a sampling. For the record, the creative team includes Seth Bockley (book), Gabriel Kahane (music and lyrics), Davis McCallum (direction), Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Mark Barton (lights), Leon Rothenberg (sound), and Danny Mefford (choreography). The cast includes Stanley Bahorek (Benjamin Britten), Ken Barnett (Peter Pears), Ken Clark (Reeves McCullers), Julian Fleisher (George Davis), Stephanie Hayes (Erika Mann), Erik Lochtefeld (W.H. Auden), Kacie Sheik (Gypsy Rose Lee), A.J. Shively (Chester Kallman) and Kristen Sieh (Carson McCullers).

Dan Bacalzo (Theater Mania): While there are a few bright spots … the slow-going endeavor is significantly lacking in character development. What makes this even more frustrating is that the musical’s dramatis personae are some of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. … Indeed, the main drawback of Bockley’s book for the musical (based on the similarly titled 2005 nonfiction book by Sherill Tippins) is that instead of really exploring the way this communal environment could have stimulated the artistic genius of its denizens, it mostly treats the enterprise as if it were a situation comedy. … The musical’s creators have taken a bit of liberty with certain biographical details regarding the individuals depicted in February House. While that is certainly to be expected in a project like this, what is harder to forgive is the mere fact that Kahane and Bockley have made these intriguing historical figures so much less interesting than they surely must have been.

Ben Brantley (New York Times): It’s the music that makes the magic in February House, the account of an experiment in communal living in the early 1940s that sounds like a culture groupie’s fever dream, glittering with boldface names. … The show and its appealing cast are at their best when the focus is on individual artists who feel alone, even among their own, and hear uncommon melodies that no one else hears. … When the gang decides to give a party, its constituents sound like Judy and Mickey preparing to put on a show in the barn. … What saves February House from annoying gaucheness and pretension is the obvious affection that its creators feel for their subjects. This show suggests a sweet collection of fans’ notes, set to music that is something more than that. As a lyricist, Mr. Kahane, a singer-songwriter who eludes pigeonholes, may hardly be on a level with Auden, three of whose poems he courageously uses as the basis for songs. But the music he writes artfully captures the spirit of the years.

Joe Dziemianowicz (Daily News): February House is a well-meaning but wimpy and exceedingly precious new musical at the Public Theater. It’s a disappointment, since the material, inspired by a book by Sherill Tippins, seemed filled with music – a bohemian rhapsody, if you will. … With careers percolating and war ravaging Europe, there’s much to mine. But Bockley’s book simply finds the residents squabbling, fretting about sex and then leaving. It fails to locate themes that resonate and make it more than the simple fact that this happened. A Big Brother episode has more tension. Indie singer-songwriter Kahane’s collection of art songs are designed to match the idiosyncratic personalities and histories of the characters. Lyrics tend to be predictable or forced and the melodies ineffectual. … Director Davis McCallum’s spare staging gives the show an elemental look. His cast is a mixed bag.

Keith Staskiewicz (Entertainment Weekly): Bolstered by a series of complex, moving songs by Gabriel Kahane that sound like a melding of Steven Sondheim and Sufjan Stevens, the musical skips deftly from contrapuntal dissonance to an open-air folksiness that itself is a fascinating counterpoint to the cultured subject matter. … Like the most erudite possible version of a VH1 celebreality show, the high-profile personalities complement each other by the sheer unlikeliness of their proximity. … But it’s Kahane’s music and exceptional lyrics that carry the production into the sublime, even if the cast occasionally strains to keep up with his intricate melodies. … A–

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