Barbara Kahn and Jay Kerr's Pyrates!, a musical about 18th-century sea robbers Anne Bonny and Mary "Mark" Read, delighted audiences at Theater for the New City well before Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's The Pirate Queen. In their newest collaboration, 1918: A House Divided, book writer-lyricist Kahn works magic again, this time with composer Alison Tartalia. A House Divided begins with the jaunty but efficiently clarifying song "Shake the Tambourine for 1918." The world of New York during the First World War is quickly established. Then we meet protagonist Breindl Gershon (Victoria Lavington), a young Russian-Jewish Brooklynite who dreams of being an artist and prefers to be called Billie. She also entertains a silent crush on Rina Calvatti (Victoria Levin), the lonely Italian accompanist at the local picture palace, where everyone goes to watch silent films and newsreels produced by the military.
Billie clashes over art and sexuality with her traditional sister Raisl (Erin Leigh Schmoyer) and Old World father (Dan Leeds). Her father exiles her from the house, and, with no one to turn to except Rina, she finds love. Meanwhile, the war divides New York society, and Billie's Greenwich Village friends confront a big risk when their antiwar protest in Washington Square faces potentially violent opposition from the police.
As Abraham Lincoln warned, "A house divided cannot stand." Will Billie and her estranged family find the courage to make peace? Can the war be stopped before it destroys her community more than the internal divisions between the hawks and the doves already have done? And will all the characters survive their battles, on the home front as well as those abroad?
Kahn tells a complex, riveting story about love, courage, and the painful division of homes, cities, and nations. Meticulously researched, with vintage newsreels playing on a cinema screen above the stage, A House Divided also resonates painfully with present-day reality. When painter Jamie (Robert Gonzales Jr.) sings a farewell duet, "The Last to Die," with his just-drafted boyfriend Ricardo (Michael Naclerio), the Iraq War parallels were unmistakable. The two romances are endearing, though a scene in which a third woman, artist's model Carmen (Kelly Scanlon), hits on Rina in front of the timid Billie is never really followed up.
Some of the lyrics are witty and reach for Sondheim in the use of rhyme: "I'm really not offended / By a nude who has descended / A stair / I really don't care!" At a few points, they fall into cliché. "Happy as a lark" and "free as the breeze" are examples. But with help from Tartalia's varied, memorable, and often soaring score, Kahn generally eschews preaching for passion, and the result is engaging.
The cast is uniformly strong, and the singers make themselves heard clearly over the instruments. Most of them also play instruments, in the style of Sondheim musicals recently directed by John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company).
Mark Macante's set is simple but effective, dominated by a huge, forbidding movie screen in a gold frame and the rows of chairs that make up the cinema auditorium. Amy Kitzhaber's costumes look appropriate for the period, though greater risks could have been taken. The "Drag Ball at Webster Hall" could have included more drag—in that scene most of the women wear dresses, and all of the men wear trousers.
Kahn's direction keeps the bustle moving. My only objection was to the final tableau, in which four actors stood between the lovers Billie and Rina, interfering with the metaphor for reunited lovers, home, and community.
I left A House Divided humming "Shake the Tambourine" and haunted by the lyrics of "The Last to Die." I hope to see it revived soon. It needs a little tinkering, but it should keep its energy and power.