By Ryan Leeds
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.
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.
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.