A scene from February House
(© Joan Marcus)
A scene from February House
(© Joan Marcus)
The historical details that inspired Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley's new musical February House, now at The Public Theater, are richly tantalizing. Unfortunately, that has not translated into an absorbing show. While there are a few bright spots scattered throughout the over two-and-a-half-hour production, the slow-going endeavor is significantly lacking in character development.

What makes this even more frustrating is that the musical's dramatis personae are some of the most fascinating figures of the 20th Century, including novelist Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh), poet W. H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek), and legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik).

They come together under the roof of editor George Davis (Julian Fleisher), who turns a dilapidated Victorian boarding house in Brooklyn Heights into a commune for the artistic set. The name for the house (and musical) derives from the fact that several of the residents (including Auden, Davis, and McCullers) have birthdays in February.

Kahane's score -- which mixes art house and folk sensibilities -- is at its best in its character portraits, such as the quietly effective "Coney Island," which is a peek into McCullers' mind and artistic impulses. But it also includes numbers such as the inane "A Certain Itch" -- sung by Britten and his lover, the renowned tenor Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) -- about a bedbug infestation, which only serves to make the characters an object of ridicule.

Indeed, the main drawback of Bockley's book for the musical (based on the similarly titled 2005 nonfiction book by Sherill Tippins) is that instead of really exploring the way this communal environment could have stimulated the artistic genius of its denizens, it mostly treats the enterprise as if it were a situation comedy.

The performers, under the direction of Davis McCallum, do uneven work. Fleisher begins promisingly with some intense, direct to the audience addresses, but isn't able to build on that in order to make his character a compelling or complex individual. Sieh appears to be trying a little too hard to get McCullers' Southern accent down, which impairs her book scenes, although she fares better when singing.

A.J. Shively, as Auden's young lover, the up-and-coming poet Chester Kallman, is a striking presence, and his big number, "Chester's Etiquette" is one of the livelier sequences of the show. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much stage chemistry with Lochtefeld, making the depiction of the Auden-Kallman relationship (at both its high and low points) seem somewhat tepid.

Sheik is amusing in her solo striptease, "A Little Brain," but her work in the rest of the show is fairly one-note. It's unclear how much this should be blamed on the performer, however, as it's a problem with the script, as well. This similarly affects Bahorek and Barnett, who enact stereotypical portrayals of uptight Englishmen, as well as Stephanie Hayes as the German writer and performer Erika Mann, and Ken Clark as Carson's estranged husband, Reeves.

The musical's creators have taken a bit of liberty with certain biographical details regarding the individuals depicted in February House. While that is certainly to be expected in a project like this, what is harder to forgive is the mere fact that Kahane and Bockley have made these intriguing historical figures so much less interesting than they surely must have been.