It must have been thrilling, that brief time in the early 1940s when an international crazy quilt of brilliant young artists holed up in a rundown Brooklyn Heights boardinghouse to discover themselves, worry about bombs in Europe and luxuriate in a judgment-free zone of gender liberation.
We're going to have to assume it was thrilling, because "February House," the ambitious new musical about the goings-on in the bohemian commune, is pretty much of a bore. Worse, the show -- the first commission of the Public Theater's Musical Theater Initiative -- manages to be both pretentious about the making of capital-A Art while trivializing, for starters, Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden and Carson McCullers.
Feminine men, masculine women and, briefly, even Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik), lounge around the ruin made stylish by George Davis (Julian Fleisher), a gadfly and former magazine editor who invites famous friends and friends of friends to fulfill his dream of a creative oasis.
Seth Bockley's libretto, inspired by Sherill Tippins' 2005 book of the same name, skims over the qualities that surely made these people more than self-conscious caricatures, while director Davis McCallum's hardworking cast seems to be playacting artistic dress-up -- complete with smoking jackets, gin flasks and bad accents.
Gabriel Kahane, a crossover concert composer and lyricist, crosses over a lot in this pastiche. For McCullers (Kristen Sieh), the Georgian novelist, there are Laura Nyro-type ballads with a twang. Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and his lover/muse, tenor Peter Pears (Ken Barnett), are reduced to Brit-twit Gilbert and Sullivan clowns. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld) comes off with more dignity, though he keeps repeating the same hymn to his adored "angel" (A.J. Shively), the much younger Chester Kallman.
For all its intentions of originality, there are flashes of "Rent," various Sondheims, "The Wild Party" and points up and down Tin Pan Alley. The meandering melodic lines can be a bit high for some singers, but the onstage chamber ensemble is delicately supportive.
The dilapidated house, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, is transformed enviably by George, who returns from thrift shops jauntily singing, "a room comes together with a perfect chair." Wish the people didn't feel like decoration, too.
WHAT "February House"
WHERE Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan
INFO $80-$90; 212-539-8500; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Pretentious and trivializing musical about artists