Tragedy Revisited With Song and Dance
Present meets the past in Max Vernon’s time-traveling new musical The View Upstairs, which opened last month at the Lynn Redgrave theater. The musical is set in the eponymous UpStairs Lounge, a seventies gay bar and safe haven for the LGBT community located in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Prior to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, The UpStairs Lounge was the site of the most fatal single attack on the gay community when an arsonist set fire to the entry stairs, trapping its patrons inside and killing 32. Vernon chooses to (mostly) set his musical on the day of the attack in 1973. But not entirely. Enter Wes (Jeremy Pope), an aspiring gay fashion designer from 2017 who, in a dimly lit flash-forward scene, buys the former lounge space, now long abandoned. After taking a sniff of a mysterious powder, Wes is transported back to the 1973 UpStairs Lounge (masterfully designed by scenic design whiz Jason Sherwood), complete with its quirky cast of regulars. Those characters include a couple of hustlers, a piano player with an alleged “wife and kids at home,” a drag queen (and his mother), a butch female bartender and the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, a pro-LGBT Protestant denomination (and actual patron the night of the attack). The most notable regular is stand-out Nathan Lee Graham as the effervescent, ageless and underutilized Willie, a true dandy, who elicits audible audience praise after every line or song.
While the show is filled with energy, what it lacks is story. What actually happened in the hours leading up to this disaster is unclear, but it is safe to say it did not center around a man from the future who falls in love with a hustler, decides he’s too good to date a hustler, only to go back to the hustler to give true love a shot. Wes does not understand why the gay men and women from the past are afraid of the police or filled with self-pity because he simply is not. After standing up to an officer he sings that “The Future is Great” because of things like unprotected sex, dating apps on mobile devices and legalized gay marriage. His desensitivity to the LGBT struggle is curiously unsympathetic and makes him unlikeable. There are subplots too, including the touching story of acceptance between mother and son Inez and Freddy (Nancy Ticotin/Michael Longoria), undoubtedly inspired by Willie Inez Whatley Warren, the sole female victim of the massacre, who lost her two sons James and Eddy in the blaze. However alive the subplots, there are too many and the focus is lost.
Despite the the tributary of storylines, The View UpStairs is redeemed by its talented ensemble performing a masterful composer's work. Vernon, a recipient of the Jonathan Larson Grant, knows how to write music and he proves it in a slew of commanding songs. Additionally, he chose a long-forgotten tragedy and brought it to multi-generational audiences (gay and straight) to continue the conversation of what it means to be part of the LGBT community and for that he deserves great praise.