Suavely dragging on their cigarettes, tippling from their pocket flasks, and striking grandly languorous poses, the characters in the new musical “February House” look as if they stepped out of some fabulous movie Bette Davis forgot to make. But don’t be deceived. As soon as they open their mouths, it’s clear that while their outfits, the masterly work of Jess Goldstein, speak nostalgically of the 1940s, their songs absolutely, unconditionally sing of today — and herald the arrival of a major talent on the musical theater scene.
Gabriel Kahane, the deadpan composer of the “Craigslistlieder,” has confected nearly two dozen exquisite songs to tell the story of a ragtag Brooklyn Heights town house that once served — ever so fleetingly — as a kind of all-star artists’ commune. Along with the Chicago-based playwright and director Seth Bockley, who fashioned the equally compelling “February House” book, Mr. Kahane, it seems clear, will be one of the artists nudging musical theater in new directions in the 21st century.
That’s not to say that this gem, being given its world premiere at Long Wharf Theater’s Stage II, is unorthodox or avant-garde. What’s astonishing about it — apart from the preternatural skill that went into its creation — is the apparent ease with which it transforms a houseful of ornate Victorian furniture and brooding artists into something soaring and fresh.
Mr. Kahane and Mr. Bockley have woven their show from strands of the literary and musical history documented in Sherrill Tippins’s 2005 book “February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America.” If you’re young enough, this strange-but-true mash-up of mid-20th-century cultural celebrity may mean nothing to you. But the musical, directed with an uncommonly deft touch by Davis McCallum, wears its erudition lightly. Auden, probably the dominant English poet of his generation; McCullers, a pioneer of the Southern Gothic novel; Britten, the leading British composer of the postwar years; and Lee, the burlesque queen who burlesqued burlesque, all come across as vibrant stage characters, not just famous names.
The same goes for the less famous, too: the actress and anti-Nazi activist Erika Mann; Carson’s on-again, off-again husband, Reeves McCullers; Auden’s young lover and muse, Chester Kallman; Britten’s domestic and artistic partner, the tenor Peter Pears; and the editor and bon vivant who brought them all to 7 Middagh Street in 1940, George Davis. (The Bowleses, and several other notables who appear in Ms. Tippins’s book, haven’t made the cut into the musical, presumably with her consent, since she acted as historical consultant for the show.)
As with “La Bohème” and “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Rent,” musical theater has depicted young artists living together on talent and dreams. The witty allusions in his score demonstrate that Mr. Kahane is schooled in this tradition, but he is not bound by it. For one thing, the “February House” band consists of a piano, played at Long Wharf by Andy Boroson, and a banjo and guitar, played by Andy Stack. From these three instruments Mr. Kahane extracts crooning love songs and comic Savoyard duets, limpid country airs and a deliciously dissonant Britten parody. And his way with a lyric matches the sophistication of his music (he does get a little help here and there from Auden’s poetry). Davis, portrayed with irresistible brio by the nightclub singer Julian Fleisher, outlines his decorating philosophy in the lilting “A Room Comes Together”:
An ineffable mixture of lighting and fixture
A fixture that’s lit from within
An unlikely arrangement of taste and derangement
A séance of sacred and sin.
But what begins as a song about interior design soon morphs into a utopian vision (and an earthly example) of harmony. While “February House,” a coproduction with the Public Theater in New York, can be said to be about everything important — love, art, politics — its overarching theme is unrequited longing for community. For its residents, February House, named because so many of its boarders celebrated birthdays that month, is first and foremost a refuge from a threatening, if not downright hostile, outside world. McCullers is on the run from her marriage. Britten, Pears, Auden and Mann have fled the conflagration in Europe. Lee wants a place to write undisturbed. And Davis needs to nurse his wounds, and replenish his wallet, after being fired from his job as an editor.
As these gifted, needy, sometimes hilarious misfits learn to live together (or don’t), Mr. Bockley, Mr. Kahane and the splendid cast give us privileged access to their rooms, their works, their hearts. Kristen Sieh is a fragile, impudent Carson; Erik Lochtefeld’s Auden comes off as prissy yet soulful, and hopelessly in the thrall of A. J. Shively’s charmingly callow Chester; Stanley Bahorek and Ken Barnett have Gilbert-and-Sullivan timing as the comically stuffy Britten and Pears; Kacie Sheik has fun with “A Little Brain,” Lee’s intellectual-stripper routine (yes, it will remind you of “Zip,” from “Pal Joey”); Stephanie Hayes imbues Erika with an intense glamour; and Ken Clark is an ardent Reeves. But with his gliding falsetto and runaway panache, Mr. Fleisher makes George Davis the inarguable, indelible hero of the household.
As for the house itself, so brilliantly rendered on stage by the set design of Riccardo Hernandez and the lighting of Mark Barton — don’t bother going to Middagh Street. It was torn down years ago to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
“February House,” with book by Seth Bockley and songs by Gabriel Kahane, is at Long Wharf Theater Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through March 18. Information: longwharf.org or (203) 787-4282.