Composer Gabriel Kahane and playwright Seth Bockley have collaborated on a musical play, February House, evidently inspired by Sherill Tippins’ book by the same title, about the house at 7 Middagh Street (demolished to make way for the BQE) that, in the early 1940s, sheltered a brilliant and bizarre collection of poets, novelists, composers, and other artistic sorts, including W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Erika Mann (daughter of Nobel Prize winning German novelist Thomas Mann, she was Auden’s wife-of-convenience: he was gay and romantically involved with the young American poet Chester Kallman; she was a lesbian), Carson McCullers (recently estranged from her husband; she and Erika Mann may have become lovers), and Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote her novel The G-String Murders while living at 7 Middagh (played by Kacie Sheik; photo by T. Charles Erickson).
Hartford Courant theater critic Frank Rizzo, while observing that the second act is a “bump[y] ride,” sums up his impression thus:
Let me get right to the point. For all the second-act flaws, this is the most fascinating, beguiling, original musical I’ve seen in years. Not since “Sunday in the Park with George” does a musical so dazzlingly explore the role of art, artists and the “real” world in which they live with such creativity, intelligence and heart. It also introduces a fresh, boundary-breaking new talent to the musical theater stage in Kahane.
Andrew Beck, in the Examiner, is less sanguine:
The final result…is interesting but disappointing, with a book that fails to build tension and a score that can at times feel monotonous and downright gloomy. Although set in the 1940’s, the music is often more referential to Britten’s subsequent dissonant 12-tone experiments than to the popular music of the time. With only piano and banjo accompaniment, the singing actors are required to provide much of the musical resonance, with their voices filling in some of the contrast to the instrumental line. While many in the cast have sturdy musical backgrounds, they are often required to [be] speaking on note, rather than singing on note.
From May 8 through June 10 you can judge for yourself, as February House will be playing at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan.