I made a vow going into February House, a new musical at Off Broadway’s Public Theater about a Brooklyn boarding house that once housed the likes of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee: If at any point Auden started to belt out, ”Stop all the clocks!” I would have no choice but to get up and make a quick escape through the breach in good taste.
It happened, of course, about midway through the second act, but I remained seated because the rest of the production up until that point had been such a lovely and filigreed objet that I barely even noticed. 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.
The story is true: In 1940, writer and Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis (Julian Fleisher) founded a commune in Brooklyn Heights that attracted an odd assortment of boarders with low cash flow but high cultural cachet. 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: the Southern-tomboy intuitiveness of McCullers (played by Kristen Sieh like a spunky Holly Hunter from another era) meshes well with Auden’s (Erik Lochtefeld) reticence and Oxfordian diction.
Seth Bockley’s dialogue is funny and quick, but also has something on its mind. He frames the characters’ conversations in the years leading up to America’s involvement in WWII as an exploration of art’s responsibility toward politics. The house’s other tenants also include the quibbling, stiff-upper-lip musical couple Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (Stanley Bahorek and Ken Barnett) and artist Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), who had a lavender marriage with Auden and, according to the musical, an affair with McCullers.
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. Inevitably, there are moments, like Auden’s mournful ”Funeral Blues” number, when the basic silliness of a singing, dancing cultural all-star team comes into relief and you can feel the musical’s needle swinging towards absurdity. But there are just as many when it swings towards something genuinely wonderful. A?