The show: "February House"
The place: Stage II at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven.
What is it?: World premiere of musical with script by Seth Bockley; music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane; input from Sherill Tippins whose non-fiction book "February House" chronicles characters and events of the musical's story
What's it about?: Set in 1940, the show centers on a Victorian boarding house in Brooklyn that acted as a communal home for one year for artists that included poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, author Carson McCullers, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, and editor George Davis, among others.
Some household. Who did the cleaning?: Well, that's part of its humor and charm when rarefied talents have to deal with the everyday issues of communal when there's no heat, bedbugs, lapsed rent, noisy roommates and short supplies of food and booze.
But it's so much more than that.
In what way?: Let me get right to the point. For all the second-act flaws, this is the most fascinating, beguiling, original musical I've seen in years. Not since "Sunday in the Park with George" does a musical so dazzlingly explore the role of art, artists and the "real" world in which they live with such creativity, intelligence and heart. It also introduces a fresh, boundary-breaking new talent to the musical theater stage in Kahane.
Like the second act in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical about the painter Georges Seurat, "February House" doesn't quite follow through as successfully after intermission. But since this show doesn't open in New York for a few months, there's time for further development.
What makes "February House" so compelling is that it has many points of view in these finely detailed characters that Bockley and Kahane create: There's a living legend in Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), a writer with a smashing first novel in McCullers (Kristen Sieh), a composer on the cusp of greatness in Britten (Stanley Bahorek), a once-promising artist in Davis (Julian Fleisher, who anchors the evening with his special brand of charisma), a young poet just starting out in Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively), an artist turned social activist in Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes) and a burlesque star who aspires to belong to the world of the fine arts in Gypsy (Kacie Sheik) — and Gypsy really needs a second act song to reflect that outsider yearning.
The show also connects on a more universal level of belonging, of wanting to feel special, of being free to express yourself, of understanding one's place in the real world.
Whereas the first act — which is basically the coming together of the characters into the house — flows with an elegant sense of mise-en-scène and romantic optimism, the second act is a bumpier ride dramatically and musically as the world beyond their doors threaten to change everything.
Then problem is that as sexual, marital and societal conflicts — not to mention the war in Europe — grow in the second half, so does the musical dissonance. It comes to a head at a New Year's party spurred by McCullers' estranged husband Reeves (Ken Clark) which marks the beginning of the end for the Utopian experiment.
Though it makes thematic sense for the tone to turn sharper, you find yourself agreeing with Gypsy's comment about an inaccessible opera she saw when she was hungry, "I found myself thinking about a hamburger most of the time."
But oh the wonderful songs, exquisite singing and sublime performances along the way, presented in musical styles that reflect the residents of "February House" operetta for Brit Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears (Ken Barnett), Southern ballads for McCullers, hymns for Auden, and a pleasing tease from Gypsy.
"Light Upon the Hill," "Coney Island, "Goodnight to the Boarding House," "Georgia,""Wanderlust" and "Awkward Angel" have haunting melodies and lyrical ache that goes straight to the heart. "George Comes Through," "Chester's Etiquette" "A Little Brain," "California" and "A Certain Itch" are all crowd pleasers of the highest order.
Who will like it?: The literati and intelligentsia, fans of the challenging work of composers such as Sondheim, Adam Guettel and Kahane, and just plain old sensitive souls.
Who won't?: Those who only like conventional book musicals or revues with special effects, kick lines and stars.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less?: A haunting, intimate chamber musical so special you want to wrap your protective arms around it.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Even imperfect as it is, there's no doubt when you're in the presence of something special.
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.
Runs through: March 18, then it moves to off-Broadway's The Public Theater where it plays May 8 to June 10.
Information: 203-772-4282 and http://www.longwharf.org.Want to take a peek at the show?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYmCuNyLpjg&feature=youtu.be
Did you see the show? What did you think? Share your thoughts or a review in the "Comments" section of my blog. And be the first to know — and perhaps be my guest at a future show — by following me on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz. And catch me Friday morning on FOX/CT's "Morning Show" during the 9 o'clock hour talking about "February House" and future Fridays talking about other shows.