Hal Prince must have heard that something extraordinary was taking place at the Public Theater.
Trailing a small posse, the director of “Phantom of the Opera” and “A Little Night Music” stopped by to catch a preview of “February House,” an exciting new musical.
It’s set in a rooming house in Brooklyn, where Gypsy Rose Lee hangs her G-string for a while to the surprise of W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten and Carson McCullers.
In 1940 and 1941, they all lived under one roof at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, escaping various traumas, including the war, and looking for a safe place to make art, not to mention love.
The landlord, George Davis, was a sometime editor and bon vivant; Anais Nin named the place “February House,” because so many of its inhabitants were born in that month.
Composer-lyricist Gabriel Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley bring them captivatingly to life in the first commission by the Public Theater’s Music Theater Initiative.
George (flouncy Julian Fleisher) is the master of these fleeting, impassioned revels, orchestrating the otherwise cacophonic voices as he introduces the story:
“In Brooklyn there is light upon the hill/It glows despite the storm...”
He obsesses as much on the furnishings as he does his tenants: “A room comes together when it’s well arranged/You got the sense it can’t be changed....an unlikely arrangement of taste and derangement/a seance of sacred and sin.”
There’s plenty of sin at 7 Middagh Street, where Britten (the charmingly boyish Stanley Bahorek) has come to work on his opera “Paul Bunyan” with his partner, the singer Peter Pears (gangling Ken Barnett).
Auden (imposing Erik Lochtefeld), somewhat imperious, takes up with a student, Chester Kallman (youthful A.J. Shively). McCullers (the enchanting Kristen Sieh), having just published “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” is seeking respite from a noisy marriage and will be charmed by Erika Mann (regal Stephanie Hayes), daughter of Thomas and the intellectual activist among the group.
Who should stop by, only to stay long enough to write her own book, but Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik, looking the part). In a sly tip of the hat to his forebears, Kahane gives the stripper a ditty articulating her intellectual aspirations: “If you want to get my hair in a tousle/Talk to me about Bertrand Russell,” recalling “Zip,” the satirical swipe at Gypsy that Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote for “Pal Joey.”
McCullers, already finding too much solace in her ever-present flask, is the soul of “February House,” singing in a bruised drawl of the appealing freaks at Coney Island and her beloved Georgia.
Kahane’s songs range wide and deep. This sometimes leads him into waters I’d rather not enter, chiefly the screechy Act II opener about bedbugs.
And Bockley’s book hews perhaps too close to the realistic events of the day, even when the songs themselves happily lift us to heights beyond Brooklyn’s.
“February House” could stand to lose a few rooms; it’s at least 20 minutes too long. Mainly, however, the score adroitly balances lush romanticism and sharp wit. I wanted to hear it again.
Davis McCallum’s staging has infectious energy, often in subtle play with Riccardo Hernandez’s suggestive set and Jess Goldstein’s dream-state lighting.
Whatever the future holds for “February House,” it has introduced a vital new voice to the musical theater. That’s exactly what the Public ought to be doing with sponsor Mary Jo and Ted Shen’s money and this promising initiative.
No one will accuse “Old Jews Telling Jokes” of bait and switch. Although two of the five-member ensemble are, in fact, youngish Jews, even the new jokes are old, you’ve heard them before in one form or another, and they will, I can promise, make you laugh out loud at least a half-dozen times over the painless, 90-minute evening.
Bill Army, Marilyn Sokol, Todd Susman, Audrey Lynn Weston and Lenny Wolpe are Old World, or at least Borscht Belt, masters of eksents, shrugs and eye-rolls, even -- especially -- when they’re talking about sex, aging, or both.
You will have your favorites, to be sure, but mine is Susman’s deadpan, only slightly Yiddish-inflected recitation of “Ol’ Man River.” Cracked me up.
At the Westside Theatre (Downstairs), 407 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.