BWW REVIEW: The View UpStairs: A New Musical Shines A Well-Intentioned Light On Gay Life in 1970s New Orleans
Early in THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, a new rock musical by Max Vernon set mainly in a real 1970s gay dive bar in the French Quarter, a handsome young hustler (Taylor Frey) wants to go home with Wes, a time-traveling New York fashion designer a half-million dollars in debt. Wes (Jeremy Pope) has left a "rat-infested apartment in the anus of Brooklyn" to live with his loving parents in New Orleans, hoping to jumpstart a fledgling career.
Wes protests, "But I-I. I haven't even seen any photos of you!" Patrick, a sweet, simpleminded young man who tries to break through Wes' superficiality, responds, "You're looking right at me." Wes means naked, of course, but when Patrick offers him a view in the bathroom, Wes gives a response that captures the difference between dating (or "cruising") in 1973 and 2017: "I'd rather not see it, until I've seen it and know that it's something I want to see. If TV has taught me anything, it's that 'reality' doesn't exist. It's scripted. It's something you perform, and if enough people see it, then it's real."
Unfortunately, much of the writing in THE VIEW UPSTAIRS doesn't match the cleverness of this exchange. Initially, the conceit of a 28-year-old social media addict who finds himself in a dive bar with a "gay Applebee's meets an episode of Hoarders charm," and makes predictably anachronistic references to hashtags, "Insta," and the Huffington Post, is cute. But the gimmick soon wears thin and Wes comes off as that too sassy kid in a many a Broadway show. This fault lies less with Pope, who sings and moves well, than with character development.
The other patrons are about what you'd expect: a bighearted Puerto Rican drag queen named (Michael Longoria), a married, bitter queen whose music career didn't pan out (Randy Redd), a nice hustler who ran away at 14, afraid to undergo a barbaric conversion therapy that left a gay relative essentially comatose (Taylor Frey), a mentally unbalanced homeless hustler (Ben Mayne), and a gentle older man (Benjamin Howes) who functions as the UpStairs Lounge's "priest." The bar doubled as a temporary home for the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), America's first gay church which was founded in Los Angeles in 1968, a year before Stonewall, and four years before the events of the play.
Presiding over the "freaks" who seek refuge in the UpStairs Lounge is the gruff but caring Henri (Frenchie Davis). As a black woman in the South, she understands that resistance takes various forms. So when, as happens periodically, a corrupt, bigoted, and abusive police officer pays her a visit, Henri doesn't flinch. Freddy stumbles into the bar with a bloody eye and without his costumes, which have been stolen.
Our New York protagonist, living in the age of Black Lives Matter and marriage equality, is outraged. He provokes the officer and the situation escalates. Battles lines are drawn, with patrons taking various places along the spectrum of resistance, from conciliation to confrontation. How best to handle relations with the straight community--should the gay community build bridges or burn them?--arouses a similar set of responses.
There's nothing particularly original or sophisticated about any of this, but those were indeed tensions as the gay community fought for legitimacy. And given the current political climate, it's worth reminding a younger generation what it was like just 40 years ago. Few in this crowd believed Trump would become "45," or that basic human rights--from freedom of the press to gay marriage--would be in jeopardy. Moreover, before the Pulse Orlando shooting, the fire at the UpStairs Lounge was the deadliest hate crime against gays and lesbians in American history, yet remains unknown outside New Orleans except to activists or students of queer history.
The VIEW UPSTAIRS is a production of the Culture Project, which bills itself as "New York's home for socially conscious theater." Seen in that context, the play is not without value. Just don't expect nuance. And at one hour forty-five minutes and no intermission, it's a tough slog. Out of sixteen musical numbers, only a handful are musically compelling. The band, led by James Dobinson on keys, is off-stage. It was hard to tell, initially, whether some of the music was pre-recorded or if it was all live. A television monitor visible from the middle section of the house suggested the latter.
"Some Kind of Paradise," the show's opening song (reprised in the penultimate number) is weak. " Taylor Frey's beautiful falsetto makes "What I Did Today," one of the better songs in THE VIEW UPSTAIRS deeply moving. And Nathan Lee Graham is spectacular as Willie, a holdover from another era of gay life with a campy sensibility. "Theme Song" is the show's musical hit, though the terrific Nancy Ticotin, who plays Freddy's supportive mom, helps makes "Most Important Thing" entertaining. The relationship between the immigrant mother whose husband left her upon discovering their son was gay is among the best-written material in the show and Longoria, both as Freddy and "Aurora Whorealis," sparkles throughout.
The powerful closing scene between Wes and the officer (Richard E. Waits) is the play's dramatic climax. Unfortunately, two songs follow, which dilutes its effect. Still, though uneven and often heavy-handed, THE VIEW UPSTAIRS has some nice moments (and Anna Yavich's costumes are everything one would wish for in a play about a gay costume designer who travels back in time to 1973). Given the important subject matter, one just wishes it worked better as a piece of art.