"February House," which just opened at the Public Theater, is a chamber musical mainly intended for a highbrow audience that will recognize its famous characters and appreciate its less-than-melodic, minimalist score.
But it is also a very static show that quickly grows repetitious and boring despite its soulful nature and liberal leanings.
Inspired by the Sherill Tippins book of the same name, "February House" recalls how magazine editor George Davis (Julian Fleisher) invited a diverse group of internationally renowned creative artists to join him in an unconventional sort of bohemian commune at a Brooklyn Heights town house in the early 1940s.
The musical's characters include British composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek), Southern Gothic novelist Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh), burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik), pro-war writer Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes) and poet W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld).
Composer-lyricist Gabriel Kahane and book-writer Seth Bockley give distinctive voices to all the characters and emphasize how this artistic group, in the midst of boozing and rewriting, found solace while World War II raged outside.
Yet the score is musically underwhelming, with much of it sounding like a pale imitation of Sondheim, and there is very little plot to speak of besides a few inner-character changes. Davis McCallum's intimate production is visually attractive, featuring a sparse but elegant set design by Riccardo Hernandez dominated by a few pieces of old furniture and a black brick wall, Mark Barton's shadowy lighting and Jess Goldstein's rich costumes.
Among the fine ensemble cast, Fleisher stands out for his heartfelt take on George, who serves as an editor, landlord and all-purpose caretaker, and Lochtefeld makes for a sensitive Auden, who watches his male lover drift away from him.Sieh is unpredictable and eccentric but believably frail as McCullers. And Sheik adds some much needed dose of fun with a short but sexy striptease act.
If you go: "February House" plays at the Public Theater through June 10. 425 Lafayette St., 212-967-7555, publictheater.org.