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Then and Now: ‘The View UpStairs’

March 15th, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

The cast of 'The View UpStairs.' (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘The View UpStairs.’ (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

Thank goodness for Max Vernon, the 28-year-old wunderkind who continues to carry the torch of gay history to a new generation. Vernon, an NYU graduate, is the author, composer, and lyricist for the thoroughly thoughtful and entertaining Off-Broadway musical, The View UpStairs.

Loosely based on an actual event, this disco-spiked show begins with Wes (Jeremy Pope), a know-it-all millennial fashionista who returns to his native town of New Orleans in 2017 to renovate what was once a very popular gay bar known as the UpStairs Lounge.

Much to his surprise and dismay, the realtor (Nancy Ticotin) failed to inform Pope that the lounge had serious fire damage. Just as Wes is ready to throw in the towel, the locals who used to frequent the establishment visit him in a hallucinogenic Dickensian style) by. Suddenly, he is transported back to 1973.

Frenchie Davis in 'The View UpStairs.' (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

Frenchie Davis in ‘The View UpStairs.’ (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

The bar’s regulars include Henri (Frenchie Davis), the butch lesbian matron of the joint, Richard (Benjamin Howes), a pastor who conducts weekly church services here, Freddy (Michael Longoria), a spritely Puerto-Rican drag queen whose mother (played in a dual role by Ticton) not only supports her son’s lifestyle but also offers assistance with everything from make-up to tucking (he politely refuses the latter.) The watering hole also attracts some less desirable characters including Dale (Ben Mayne) whose only crime appears to be poverty and wanting to be noticed. Buddy (Randy Redd) serves as the glue to this gay “Cheers,” and Patrick (Taylor Frey) provides the romantic plotline, along with Wes, who is somewhat wary of this blast from the past pretty boy.

Of everyone in this cornucopia of carefree spirits, it is Willie (Nathan Lee Graham) who commands the most attention. Graham, whose antics never tire, could read a business card and turn it into a carefully executed work of dramatic art. Here, he is the “old queen” who is quick with a quip and an arched eyebrow with the tacit implication:  “I will cut you and keep on walking.” Graham is a stunning performer who knows precisely when and how to respond to his fellow castmates but is also careful not to pull focus from the main scene. His work in this piece is a master class in the art of acting.

Vernon is mostly wise to utilize the vocal talents of his cast. Willie’s “Theme Song,” which evokes memories of the good ‘ole days, is something to cherish.  A touching moment occurs when Dale, an outcast, sings “Better Than Silence,” a plea for wanting to fit in better with this tightly knit clan. The show’s main song, “Some Kind of Paradise,” is an upbeat anthem that exalts both the lounge and its inhabitants.

The score is terrific, but I wish that Vernon had showcased Davis a bit more. From American Idol fame to Broadway’s Rent, Davis has wowed audiences with her remarkably soulful voice. Unfortunately, she has little opportunity to share it.

(l to r) Randy Redd, Benjamin Howes, Michael Longoria, and Jeremy Pope in 'The View UpStairs.' (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Randy Redd, Benjamin Howes, Michael Longoria, and Jeremy Pope in ‘The View UpStairs.’ (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

With kitsch knick-knacks and Christmas lights adorning Jason Sherwood’s detailed set, one might think that this is a dive bar—maybe it is. But to the customers, it is a haven of friendship and community that nurtures face-to-face human connection, something that is sorely lacking for Wes, whose only concern is erasing valuable history and collecting followers on social media.

Vernon’s commentary is astute and on target. In April last year, Michael Musto wrote a piece in the New York Times regarding the death of gay clubs, thanks to a combination of mobile apps, high cover charges, and increased real estate costs. Connection has become transactional.

The View UpStairs also covers eerily prophetic territory as Patrick describes what will happen to the gay community before 2017. It is a vital reminder to young generations of what those who have gone before us have suffered, sacrificed, and endured.

It should be noted that, while the characters in Vernon’s piece are fictitious, the event that inspired it was tragically factual. The UpStairs Lounge was located in the French Quarters of New Orleans and on June 24, 1973, it was the victim of an arson attack that left 32 people dead. It remains to this day an unconvicted crime and—until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando—the worst attack on a gay establishment in U.S. history.

The View UpStairs, smartly directed by Scott Ebersold, is an important retrospective of the gay community: where we’ve been, where we are, and who we could—and should—be.

The View UpStairs 
Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project
45 Bleecker Street, NYC
Through May 21

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

Opening — ‘Speakeasy: John and Jane’s Adventures in Wonderland’

February 8th, 2016 Comments off

SpeakeasyBefore there was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, there was the wildly evocative underground theatrical world in New York City during Prohibition. This comes to live in a new production by written and composed by Danny Ashkenasi.

Speakeasy: John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland shares the sexual freedoms
explored in the 1920s and 30s, and how those freedoms were ruined with the end of Prohibition. It is a love song to queer life in New York City and to forgotten entertainers such as Gene (Jean) Malin, the openly homosexual headline act of New York’s short-lived Pansy Craze of 1929; Vaudeville’s famous Dolly Sisters; the larger-than-life black lesbian singer Gladys Bentley of Harlem’s “Negro Vogue” fame; and the popular female impersonator Julian Eltinge, to name a few. The music in Speakeasy is based on various styles of the era, but with a modern twist, including Tin Pan Alley, musical theater, jazz, swing, cabaret, operetta as well as classical and agitprop strains of the time.

It’s 1929 in New York City. John and Jane Allison are newlyweds. Although they love each other, they have desires they haven’t even acknowledged to themselves, let alone explored. But after giving her neighbor, Roberta White, a kiss, Jane goes “down the rabbit hole,” entering the strange world of a Speakeasy, where time and space and identity don’t appear to follow conventional rules.

On accepting a sexual proposition in a public men’s room, John mysteriously slides “through the looking glass,” and in one fantastical magical realist dream night, they explore their sexuality through the course of two simultaneous and intertwining magical adventures. Lewis Carroll’s literary characters and events from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” are transformed into real-life, historically significant entertainers and events from NYC’s Prohibition-era queer culture, with which Jane and John enjoy friendships and love affairs.

After a night of speakeasies, buffet flat parties, police raids, drag balls, and a bizarre trial, will they reveal their “dreams” to each other and “speak easy” about their truths?

Speakeasy: John and Jane’s Adventures in Wonderland
Theatre for the New City
155 First Avenue, NYC
February 18 – March 13

Review: Shakina Brings Down the House in “One Woman Show”

April 22nd, 2014 Comments off

By Lindsay B. Davis

Shakina Nayfack (photo: Nicki Ishmael) via The Broadway Blog.

Shakina Nayfack (photo: Nicki Ishmael) via The Broadway Blog.

On April 14, 2014, Broadway Battles Bullying presented on a benefit concert to raise money for the family of Michael Morones, an 11-year-old boy who attempted suicide after being bullied for his love of My Little Pony. The show featured a cascade of Broadway performers singing inspirational show tunes and pop selections about self-acceptance, love, and friendship. A highlight was host and mistress of ceremonies, Shakina Nayfack, a transgender performing artist/director whose energy, edgy humor, stage presence and own musical number (the poignant “Wear You” about his desire as a young boy to cross dress; music and lyrics by Julianne Wick Davis) left me wanting more. Enter One Woman Show, Shakina’s musical cabaret fresh off a sold-out run at Joe’s Pub and 54 Below and currently in limited engagement at Sophie’s inside Broadway Comedy Club. I made it my business to get there and it’s a very good thing I did, because One Woman Show is an exceptionally entertaining night of theater.

Shakina is a striking presence. Tall, broad shouldered, tattooed and bald, she has a face that glistens and a smile that lights up a room. Backed by a four-piece band and packed into a killer teal dress, her face perfectly made up with matching sparkly eye shadow (“I applied it myself, of course!” she tells me while effortlessly working the room before the show), Shakina kicks off the night singing “Chick with a Shtick”, a nod to her Jewish heritage and play on words for the body part she is excited to excise. Within a few bars she and shortly after belting “I’m getting a vaginaaaa”, I am not the least bit uncomfortable. And herein lies one of Shakina’s many, extraordinary gifts – she puts you at ease while unapologetically, lovingly being herself. She is a soul sister, glam rock, badass punk diva singing about a traumatic childhood (proving once again that the best comedy comes from pain) and gender transition process that will culminate in sexual assignment surgery by a doctor in Thailand. I am riveted—it is that feeling you get when in the presence of real, bona fide talent.

Shakina Nayfack (photo: Nicki Ishmael) via The Broadway Blog.

Shakina Nayfack (photo: Nicki Ishmael) via The Broadway Blog.

What follows is a fast moving, 90 minutes of original musical numbers written for Shakina, cover songs and show tune medleys interspersed with exceptionally detailed, confessional, courageous and raw autobiographical storytelling. One Woman Show begins in “1987, suburban LA” where desires to wear a dress are met with judgment, and expressions of gender identity and sexuality are greeted with gay bashing and blame—all this contributing to being institutionalized at age 16.

In recounting this all, Shakina takes the audience deep into the belly of what it feels like to struggle against bigotry and mental illness. From singing at the top of her lungs while in psych ward solitary confinement (the rapid-fire and fun “Capo Medley,” arrangement by Jeremy Robin Lyons) or awakening to the meaning of rebirth by way of getting a tattoo of the Phoenix (the beautiful “Red, Orange, and Gold”, music and lyrics by Nikko Benson), you begin to understand how triumphant Shakina has been and why she possesses an urgent need to tell this story.

When Shakina comes out as transgendered in 2001, she is 18 years old, and develops an identity as Latex Superstar while embracing a life of activism that includes sex education and slam poetry (brought back to life for us in performance). We learn about the love and loss of her friend and “Glam as Fuck” comrade Gia (the haunting “Midnight Radio” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask) and how issues of shame creep in to paralyzing effect (“Fallen Angel” a dramatic, beautiful original ballad with music and lyrics by Joel Waggoner). While touching on lessons gleaned from tragedy, the narrative is peppered with comedy —“Don’t look at me. Don’t look at my control tops either.”—so the energy in the room remains buoyant.

One Woman Show is performed without an intermission but follows a three act structure and the final act is speedy and heavy on the details of what sounds like an amazing life – Shakina earns an MFA in Experiemental Choreography, PhD in Critical Dance Studies, does extensive Butoh Ritual study in Mexico, develops the rock opera “Junk”, to name a few – culminating in a relocation to NYC to fulfill not only her gender transition process but the dream of returning to the stage. The latter seems like a no-brainer, as Shakina’s vocals are completely off the chart and Broadway caliber. Composer Joe Iconis provides the music and lyrics for the two final songs, “Broadway, Here I Come!” and “Him Today, Gone Tomorrow”, empowerment anthems that celebrate promise and the power to believe in all your dreams, or as Shakina puts it, her choice to pursue “Two dreams for the price of one!” One gets the feeling that if the Shakina had 20 dreams, she could accomplish them all. Seeing her show evokes the feeling you can do it too, which might be the biggest feat accomplished and yet another reason I deem this show a must-see.

One Woman Show
Sophie’s (318 West 53rd Street between 8th and 9th avenues)
Remaining performances: April 22 (9:30 p.m.) and 24 (10 p.m.)
$15 cover charge and a two-drink minimum.
Tickets: http://Shakina.BrownPaperTickets.com

Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.