Conventional wisdom says that music-theater amplification is all bad, a lousy concession to contemporary audiences weaned on high-decibel concerts and blaring iPods. And conventional wisdom is mainly right: most any new Broadway musical is “sweetened” to a bafflingly dehumanizing degree.
And yet… every so often there’s a show that uses amplification perfectly, not for grotesque overemphasis, but as an unobtrusive magnifying glass, a useful, delicate projector.
February House, Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley’s wonderful new musical at the Public Theater, is one such show. Directed by Davis McCallum, it’s a quiet, gently ornate piece that wafts from performer to audience, all on a beautifully melancholic melody of banjo, violin, clarinet, etc. Yes, there are a few “belty” numbers (see “A Little Brain,” sung by Kacie Sheik) but the folk-styled score is mostly understated and quiet. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design ensures that Kahane’s music retains that quality, even when surreptitiously boosted by the sound system.
The plot: February House chronicles the true story of a group of creatives, among them W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Carson McCullers, brought together by editor George Davis for an experiment in artistic, communal living. These and other boarders shared a house in Brooklyn where they could both work privately and live in community. (The preponderance of February birthdays among the tenants lent the enclave its moniker.) Unfortunately, World War II and personal dynamics broke up the utopia.
The perfectly calibrated performances of these celebrity characters mesh seamlessly with the material, with Erik Lochtenfeld (Auden), Kristen Sieh (McCullers) and Julian Fleisher (Davis) as particularly adept modulators of soul and song. Indeed—back to amplification!—the actors seem acutely aware of the ways to take advantage of their microphones–see Fleisher’s soft falsetto, on frequent display, for example.
The last song of February House is a beautiful lullaby called “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse.” The tenants have left, the dream of a “house of art” is over, and Davis soothes himself—and us—to conclusion. As performed by Fleisher (and amplified by Rothenberg) that lullaby is every bit as light, caring, and fragile as a mother’s intimate bedtime song. Properly done, theater can preserve those whispering, quiet places, and still be seen, still be heard.
Music and Lyrics by Gabriel Kahane
Book by Seth Bockley
Directed by Davis McCallum
at the Public Theater