The View UpStairs
Review by Paul Oswell
On June 24th 1973, 32 people died in an arson attack on a gay bar called The UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter. The devastation was compounded at the time by a shameful, callous reaction to the loss of life from so-called religious leaders (even given that one of the deceased was a Reverend) and city officials alike. It remained the most horrific, violent act against the LGBTQ community until the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
Before anything, we remember and honor the memory of those who lost their lives.
This may sound like an unlikely backdrop to a life-affirming musical, but playwright and composer Max Vernon was moved to create The View UpStairs in 2013, this one-act production first performed at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York in 2017.
Unless it was just to be a straight retelling of the events, a conceit was necessary, and so Vernon presents a kind of living flashback to that night. Wes (Donyae Asante), a hyper-modern influencer, has - oblivious to its history - just purchased a derelict lounge bar and tells his online followers that he can’t wait to transform it into a trendy art space.
The audience is asked to make a sudden leap as his presence somehow opens up a portal in time, and he is transported back to 1973, where it's just another night for the UpStairs regulars. It’s important to remember that much of queer life was illegal at this time, and so places to socialize were rare, the clientele ranging from vagrants to men of the cloth.
Among others, we meet firecracker bartender Henri (Lauren Sparacello), piano man Buddy (Marshall Harris), theatrical Freddy (Eddie Lockwood, who also designed the costumes), pastor Richard (Tom Vaughn), queer elder Willie (Rayshaughn Armant) and hustlers Patrick and Dale (Ty Robbins and Justice Hues).
The sense of family is apparent from the off, with a wonderful chorus adding to the opening’s song and dance numbers, a whole world and its dynamic efficiently conjured. Wes imagines himself to be hallucinating at first, but he quickly adapts and before long is explaining phone apps and the vacuity of contemporary life.
This theme has some easy laughs as the bar patrons dismiss his rants, and while it’s not the most interesting part of the night, it’s an empathetic bridge that allows us all to cross. Issues - some of which still resonate today - are discussed and fought over...the behavior of the hustlers, the spiritual health of the group, how to deal with a police raid. Some people fight, while others pretend to be straight married men, the eternal conflict between pragmatism and idealism.
Asante is tremendously charismatic as he deftly navigates a difficult role, veering from cartoonish arrogance to being mystified and lovelorn as he and Patrick - played with note-perfect, easy assurance by Robbins - start to fall for each other despite the odds. Lockwood shines as a drag queen, beaten on the street and comforted by his mother (JeAnne Marcus) before an entertaining “we’ve got just one night to put on the best show ever” subplot. Mostly in the background, Justice Hues grapples with a gradual descent into desperation with real aplomb.
Almost all of the cast are on stage for the entirety of the 100-minute run time, and I want to especially commend the chorus. Given the time-travel aspect, the show relies on the integrity of creating a realistic 1970s world, and they do an excellent job. Jack Lampert’s direction, and the choreography of Monica Ordoñez are both admirable in their dynamism and realism.
The music and songs deliver a sense of comradery and maintain an emotional resonance. There are some seriously impressive pipes on stage, particularly from Donyae Asante, Lauren Sparacello, Rayshaughn Armant and soprano JeAnne Marcus.
There are some memorable lines, and I laughed out loud when Asante begs “Give me one more chance to ruin your life!” Harris and Armant expertly tease out their characters, while Eddie Lockwood brings their skills as one of the city’s most creative burlesque performers, and they are similarly a joy to watch.
The set and book do a great job in taking us back to the early 1970s, capturing the linguistic and aesthetic ticks and contrasting them nicely with the relentless modernity embodied by Wes. It’s a love story, a cautionary tale of modern superficiality, and a gut-wrenching tragedy all in one.
It’s also a piece of New Orleans history that asks us to keep in mind both the devastating consequences of one man’s torment, but also the barbaric indifference of our institutions when a compassionate, human response was needed, but from them, none came. Many times, our found families are the ones that matter the most.
The View UpStairs plays at Jefferson Performing Arts Center through September 17th. More information and tickets here.
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