Book, Music, and Lyrics by Max Vernon
Directed by Scott Ebersold
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Forty years ago this place was a fabulously tacky gay bar with a life-sized cardboard cutout of nude Burt Reynolds hanging from the ceiling. It was a church. There was live music and dancing, hustlers, drag queens, even a mother who came with her son. It was a community of people who were funny, and brave, and full of life.” – Wes
The present (2017) and the past (1973) collide and although they never quite harmonize, the past enriches the present and gives it hope and purpose in Max Vernon’s new musical “The View UpStairs” currently running at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project. The musical begins in 1973 in the New Orleans gay bar “UpStairs Lounge” (chuck full of cultural accoutrement by set designer Jason Sherwood). Lounge regular Buddy (played with a short-fused likeability by Randy Redd) a fifty-something closeted married guy is behind the piano joined by the bartender Henri (played with a toughness underscored by deep compassion by Frenchie Davis) and the bar’s regulars. They celebrate the importance of this sacred space and affirm, “I think I found some kind of paradise.” Suddenly, the scene shifts to the present without the past really exiting.
In 2017, Wes (played with a disarming charm and vulnerability by Jeremy Pope) leaves Brooklyn and comes (returns) to New Orleans to make a fresh start. His time in New York City has not been satisfying and he feels like a failure. At twenty-seven, he seems to have lost his self-worth and has allowed his talent as a fashion designer go somewhat fallow. Wes purchases a building in New Orleans sight unseen to be the flagship of his new store “Haos” and at the beginning of the musical visits the property – the former UpStairs Lounge – for the first time. After sealing the deal with the realtor – and sharing a bit of history in his song “#householdname” – Wes examines his purchase more closely and the past “returns” and past and present co-exist until the musical’s closing scene.
The UpStairs Lounge is home to an eclectic group of individuals who form an intentional family that gathers for support and survival in a culture that is aggressively homophobic and a formidable threat to the LGBTQ community. It is difficult for Wes to understand the problems facing the gay community in the Nixon era and, at the same time, it saddens him to reflect on what he knows that community will face in its future – his past. Max Vernon’s musical is an engaging amalgam of magical realism and surrealism that allows the audience to see two histories counterpoint one another and inform each other “from a distance.” It is important to know that the events that inspired this musical are real, including the tragic events chronicled in the musical’s ending.
Each of Mr. Vernon’s characters is well developed and represents both a unique character and a “stock” character from the 1970s gay scene – a remarkable accomplishment for the musical’s creator and director Scott Ebersold. Wes meets runaway hustler Patrick (played with a steely sweetness by Taylor Frey) and begins to discover his ability to fall in love. Willie (played with his trademark charm and believability by Nathan Lee Graham) is the iconic wizened gay character able to connect across generations with his experience and perspective – he is here also in dementia’s grasp. Richard (played with a religiosity tempered with realism by Benjamin Howes) is the Metropolitan Community Church priest who tries to extend God’s love to the community’s loveless. Freddy (played with soulful charm and sadness by Michael Longoria) is a construction worker by day, doubling as the drag queen Aurora Whorealis by night. His mother Inez (played with a strident loving core by Nancy Ticotin) loves him unconditionally. And Dale (played with a tortured bleakness by Ben Mayne) is the “family’s” misfit: his homelessness and poverty and radical politics constantly challenge the patrons of the Lounge. He is ultimately thrown out after picking a fight with Buddy. And what he does afterwards is written in New Orleans history.
The power of Mr. Vernon’s musical is its unbridled and unabashed comparisons between the Nixon era and the Trump era and how each posed/poses threats to important personal freedoms. Reflecting on the future, Wes “warns” Patrick that “our president is going to be orange, and all of our personal data will float around above us in a giant invisible cloud.” And the piece’s strength also resides in its ability to use the reflection on the past to express the dangers of the present. At the end of “The View UpStairs,” Wes tells the cop (played with just the right amount of punch by Richard E. Waits) “They’re killing us. Fifty people just died in Orlando, and we’ve already moved on like it never happened. Look at who’s running this country! The people who spent their whole lives hating us and making us hate ourselves. Now they want us to all come together and hate Muslims, Mexicans, Jews, Blacks, Women, anyone who’s different. The KKK is marching in the street again; our vice president believes in conversion therapy. That’s the world we live in! We are not better!”
This is a musical with a matrix of authentic and engaging themes. It’s music, reminiscent of the 1970s, is haunting and the lyrics resonate with the joys and sorrows of past and present and establish a platform for evaluating the future. The Lounge’s “Theme Song” perhaps sums it up best: “If the heavens above you/Should come crashing down/Like a house of cards that the wind knocks/So easily to the ground/I’ll be right there beside you ‘til to the very end.” Let the people say “Amen.”