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'February House': When Musicals Whisper Rather Than Shout

Julian Fleisher and Kristen Sieh as editor George Davis and author Carson McCullers in <em>February House.</em>
Julian Fleisher and Kristen Sieh as editor George Davis and author Carson McCullers in <em>February House.</em>

I'll always love big musicals. Shows like Hairspray and Anything Goes just want to make me happy, and if they don't change my life, then so what? There are worse things than smiling for two hours while 35 hotties nail a synchronized tap number on the prow of a boat.

But sometimes, I love a musical that makes me come to it. Instead of singing in my face, a show like that whispers in my ear, giving me a private message to consider on the way home.

And February House is whispering right now at the Public Theater. Strange and dense and heartbreaking, it will never address an audience of millions, but it has lovely things to say.

The subject is an irresistible bit of history: In 1940, fiction editor George Davis invited fellow artists to live with him in a communal house in Brooklyn. His flatmates included the author Carson McCullers, the composer Benjamin Britten, the poet W.H. Auden, and even the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Just imagine a typical day in that house: All those brilliant people trying to manage their talent, but also trying to pay the telephone bill and make coffee before noon.

For February House composer Gabriel Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley, the commune is an experiment in making a family. In one way or another, all the characters hope the house — and the group — can solve their problems. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld) wants Brooklyn to be a paradise where he and his twentysomething lover Chester (A.J. Shively) can avoid the problems of insecure age and reckless youth. Carson (Kristen Sieh) wants to trade her abusive marriage for a liberated life of booze and sexual freedom. And George, poor George (Julian Fleisher), wants to be everyone's mother and father. He wants this ad hoc dormitory to replace his loneliness and sense of failure.

The musical's towering achievement is how carefully it draws each character's desires. Bockley's elegant, allusion-packed script suggests a hundred echoes for every action, hinting at motives and histories that we can understand without literal explanations. It's obvious, for instance, that George has special affection for Carson, that he sees her as a wounded, inspiring bird who needs protection. But there's never a grand speech where George declares his loyalty. We just glean it from the way he brings her food, the way he jumps to her defense, and the way he falters when she leaves the nest.

Working with director Davis McCallum, the cast creates even more nuance. I was especially impressed by Kacie Sheik as Gypsy Rose Lee, because it would have been easy to turn the world's most famous stripper into a blowsy caricature. Instead, Sheik makes it clear that Gypsy's not brassy: She's just comfortable in her body. While her roommates flit around like nervous animals, she flops on the floor, hacking away at a detective novel and laughing without wondering if people can hear. Her ease underscores the house's sadness, and it invites fascinating speculation about what she's doing there.

As much as anyone, though, Kahane gives these people voices. In his score, every character has a distinct musical language that bubbles up in solos and creates sonic conversation in group numbers. Carson's banjo songs are full of plaintive melodies and elegant metaphors, like Suzanne Vega writing before the war, while Auden's devastating ballads recall art songs, defining his bruised heart with lush arrangements. Yet despite all these styles, the score coheres. Kahane blends genres when he needs to, so everyone sounds at home in the house.

Granted, the endless attention to detail can make the show feel aimless. The first act, which runs about ninety minutes, has fewer dramatic events than elegant bouts of character development, but when the world is so rich, it's hard to complain.

Or at least, it's hard for me. Some of my friends disliked the show's meandering structure, but I'd say the journey pays off in the second act, when several characters make bold choices. Because we've spent so long getting to know them, we understand the full impact of their actions.

Cumulatively, then, this rich, slow-burning show carries remarkable weight. When it ended, I felt the loss I sometimes feel at the end of a novel, when I don't want an imaginary world to disappear. It might be desperate and lonely and full of regret, but I still want to keep on living there.

Mark Blankenship edits TDF Stages, the magazine of Theatre Development Fund.

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