Walking into the Lynn Redgrave Theater, where The View UpStairs opened off-Broadway last week, might feel like happening upon a rag-tag gay prom, or a drama club’s careworn prop closet. You’re more likely, though, to feel transported to your favorite dive, where if not exactly everybody knows your name, the bartender may at least grant you a friendly nod.
The role of gay bars has evolved in recent decades, now that hookups are just an app away, communities congregate online, and many of us no longer need safe havens. In 1973 New Orleans, where Max Vernon’s new musical unfolds in one far-out flashback, the UpStairs Lounge isn’t just a second home for its colorful patrons — it’s their only refuge from derision, prosecution, and worse.
Let’s start in the present. Wes (Jeremy Pope), a grade-A millennial and fashion school grad, has just purchased the burned-out former bar with dreams of launching his own brand. As soon as he’s alone, though, the cast comes to life around him — and whether they’re the ones intruding on his imagination or he’s the fresh meat on the scene is up for debate.
The patrons include a closeted yet lecherous pianist (Randy Redd), butch bar matron Henrietta (Frenchie Davis, a treat), Michael Longoria as a scrappy Puerto Rican drag queen, Nancy Ticotin as a mother supportive enough to do her son’s makeup, Richard (Benjamin Howes) a preacher who leads bar-stool sermons, and of course, a love interest for Wes named Patrick (a honey-voiced and dreamy Taylor Frey). But it’s Nathan Lee Graham’s spastic, seen-it-all diva extraordinaire Willie who often steals the show. Graham spits every line like a dart at a bullseye, commanding the room with a comedic precision that elevates his performance to another level.
The closest thing to a central story line is one of impossible love between Wes and Patrick, two boys from different worlds, living decades apart. Ultimately, Vernon’s musical, for which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics, adds up to a series of character portraits. Some are more lovingly detailed than others, just as some numbers are more memorable, but each character has their own distinct place in this time capsule of queer experience, and a story worth telling.
That includes Dale (Ben Mayne), a grubby hustler whom most of the other patrons seem content to ignore. He lurks in the shadows that surround the show’s somewhat ambivalent nostalgia. Here is a bygone camaraderie that anyone would want to be a part of (as some audience members are on Jason Sherwood’s semi-immersive set); it’s a safe space for gay outcasts during a more dangerous time — and yet, Dale is isolated, marginalized, and ultimately driven out when his resentment bubbles over.
The View UpStairs is inspired by true events that take a dark turn: An arsonist destroyed the New Orleans bar and killed 32 people on the night the show is set. Until the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, it was the biggest mass murder of LGBT people in the U.S.
Though the production ambles then pivots perhaps a bit too sharply under Scott Ebersold’s direction, one would be hard pressed not to feel the force of the tragedy. The program notes that a patron who was thrown out earlier in the evening was the most likely suspect, proof of the dangerous division inherent to the queer community.
Vernon’s musical revisits the beginnings of a resistance that’s gained new momentum since its time of writing. Wes’ up-to-the-minute slang may already sound dated, but a semi-final passage directly addressing current headlines brings the whole story into perspective. A lot has changed since the night of the fire (Vernon manages to conjure the spectre of AIDS without plunging in headfirst), but perhaps not all for the better.
Wes’ takeaways to the present are to connect with the people around him, live with conviction, carry on fighting, and be… well, present. They’re lessons from history we can all take to heart.
Recent theatre features…
‘Significant Other’ Renders Gay Thirst a Laughing Matter on Broadway: REVIEW
First Look at ‘The View UpStairs’, a Provocative New Musical About a Tragic Moment in LGBT History: WATCH
‘Moonlight’ Star André Holland Opens in August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Cate Blanchett Opens in ‘The Present’ on Broadway: A Gift That’s Not So Giving: REVIEW
Teen Angst Musical ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Opens on Broadway: REVIEW
Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: kurt sneddon)