Book, Music and Lyrics by Max Vernon; Directed by Scott Ebersold
Presented by Invisible Wall Productions
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 5.21.17
Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 3.9.17
Jeremy Pope, Taylor Frey, iFrenchie Davis, Nathan Lee Graham, Benjamin Howes, Nancy Ticotin, Michael Longoria,
and Randy Redd in The View UpStairs. Photo by Kurt Sneddon.
BOTTOM LINE: Trump’s 2017 collides with 1973 in this affecting and funny glam-rock musical inspired by the true story of the vibrant customers of a New Orleans gay bar where 32 people were murdered.
What happened at New Orleans' UpStairs Lounge at the conclusion of Pride Weekend on June 24, 1973 is unknown to many and forgotten by others, even though it was the deadliest mass attack on the LGBT community until the Pulse nightclub shooting. But while there were countless fundraisers for Pulse's victims and families, and the violence was condemned by the White House, such was not the case 44 years ago. On the fourth anniversary of Stonewall, no revolution, as the bartender sings in The View UpStairs, had come to the door. After the fire, charred bodies were left unclaimed—because people didn’t want to be associated with the dead, there was little news coverage, and the killer was never seriously pursued.
For its patrons, the UpStairs is, as they sing in the spirited opening number, "Some Kind of Paradise." But when Wes (Jeremy Pope), a twenty-something black, gay fashion designer returning to his hometown New Orleans after years away in New York, buys the building, the bar is decrepit and decaying. In debt and living in his parent’s attic, he wants to turn the UpStairs into his flagship store.
Tugging at the tattered, red curtains, the bar suddenly comes to life and he’s transported back to the bar’s final night in 1973. Led by Willie (Nathan Lee Graham), the men suss him out, asking if he’s more Oscar Wilde or Arthur Miller, Sonny or Cher. Wes imagines he’s hallucinating and likens it to being in a "music video for The Village People." The rest of the gang gets an introduction: there’s Freddy (Michael Longoria) from Puerto Rico whose father abandoned the family after learning his son was gay, but whose mother Inez (Nancy Ticotin) has learned to embrace him, and as the guys sing, "make sure his titties are in place" when he does drag. Buddy (Randy Redd) plays piano and leads a double life as a family man, Richard (Benjamin Howes), is a compassionate preacher who has created a makeshift congregation at the bar (the real bar was the local chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church, the first gay church in the US) and Dale (Ben Mayne) is a tragic, troubled homeless hustler. The bar is run by Henri (April Ortiz), a tough, leather-clad woman who’s a kindred spirit offering a safe space to this lot.
Wes becomes invested when he meets Patrick (Taylor Frey), a sweet-natured hustler. Patrick, like many of the other men there, has been on his own since he was a teenager and is never going to see his parents again. The stark contrast because their two experiences becomes clear to Wes—a man whose mother essentially came out for him over sushi when he was nine—when a homophobic cop enters the bar and threatens everyone unless he gets a bribe. Although Wes is outraged, the gang reminds him in "The World Outside These Walls" that being gay and getting outed in the paper means the loss of privacy, a job, and maybe your life.
As a character, Wes is burdened with qualities that so many people dislike about Millennials: he’s narcissistic, privileged, technology-obsessed, and ignorant of the past. It’s tricky to hang a show on someone shallow and unenlightened, but Pope is energetic and inspires sympathy as Wes sings to Patrick about his lonely, anxiety-filled life in "The Future is Great." While Wes is somewhat flavorless, the rest of the characters leave a lasting impression. Frey has a lovely voice and brings a great deal of pathos and decency to Patrick. As the barely tolerated Dale, the character who arguably has suffered the most, Mayne makes you feel Dale’s yearning for acceptance from his own people. Ortiz, an understudy for Frenchie Davis, acquits herself well and sings with a lot of heart. The standout though is the phenomenal Graham. Without the sarcastic, fiery, snark-ready Willie, flipping his hand-held fan to punctuate his every point, there would be no show.
As memorable as the cast is, they’re backed up by Max Vernon’s catchy and moving songs. Everyone gets a turn, which is admirable, but certain songs land better than others. The 70s clothes and wigs are pitch perfect, courtesy of Anita Yavich and Jason Hayes, respectively. There’s a lot of eye-popping polyester, tight pants, shirts open to there, and thick moustaches on display. They don’t hold a candle though to the duct tape and red plastic cup dress that Wes designs for Freddy. Jason Sherwood’s set design, aided by Andrew Diaz's props and set dressing, is outstanding. From the picture of Dolly Parton on the wall, to the naked Burt Reynolds centerfold pinned to the ceiling, to the rainbow piñata and neon Schaefer Beer sign, it's a feast for the eyes. Scott Ebersold has gone for a cabaret-style staging in the close space, placing certain audience members at tables that the cast joins from time to time. Judging from the reaction of the crowd, it’s an effective technique.
With the White House removing protections for transgender kids in schools, and growing fears that other gay rights may be rolled back, New York audiences can seek solace in the current theatre scene, which has multiple shows on stage and in the works that celebrate and honor the LGBTQ community, and The View UpStairs is a worthy new addition. But just as Wes gets woke by the end, the production’s intent is clearly to have audiences not just walk out humming, but to fight back.
(The View UpStairs plays at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker Street, through May 21, 2017. The running time is 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 6:30 and 10; Saturdays at 6 and 10; and Sundays at 6. Tickets are $46.50 - $91.50 and are available at theviewupstairs.com or by calling 866-811-4111.)
The View Upstairs is written by Max Vernon. Directed by Scott Ebersold. Choreography by Al Blackstone. Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood. Costume Design by Anita Yavich. Lighting Design by Brian Tovar. Sound Design by Justin Stasiw. Hair, Wig, and Make-up Design by Jason Hayes. Props and Set Dressing by Andrew Diaz. Music Supervisor is James Dobinson. Production Stage Manager is Elizabeth Ann Goodman.
The cast is Jeremy Pope, Taylor Frey, Nathan Lee Graham, Frenchie Davis, Benjamin Howes, Michael Longoria, Ben Mayne, Nancy Ticotin, Randy Redd, Richard E. Waits, Anthony Alfaro, and April Ortiz.