BWW Review: N. E. Premiere of THE VIEW UPSTAIRS Coincides With LGBTQ Pride Month
The View UpStairs
Book, Music, & Lyrics by Max Vernon, Directed by Paul Daigneault, Music Direction by Adam Bokunewicz, Choreography by Alessandra Valea; Scenic Design, Abby Shenker; Costume Design, Dustin Todd Rennells; Lighting Design, Abigail Wang; Sound Design, Elektra T. Newman; Lauren Burke, Production Stage Manager; Stephen MacDonald, Assistant Stage Manager; Fight Choreographer, Greg Maraio; Props Master, Kaitlyn Burke
CAST (in alphabetical order): Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda, Russell Garrett, J'royce Jata, Michael Levesque, Will McGarrahan, Davron S. Monroe, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Eddie Shields, Jared Troilo, Shawn Verrier; Musicians: Eli Schildkraut, Conductor/Keyboard; Jesse Timm, Guitar; Beth McPherson, Bass; Mario Layne Fabrizio, Percussion
Performances through June 22 by SpeakEasy Stage Company at The Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 537 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com
Just in time for LGBTQ Pride Month, and on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of the Off-Broadway musical The View UpStairs in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. Inspired by a little-known historical event, Max Vernon pays tribute to '70s gay culture and the victims of the firebombing of the UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1973. Although 32 people perished (the deadliest assault on a gay bar prior to the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub which killed 49 people), Vernon's book and score focus on the personalities of the archetypal characters, the challenges they faced in that era, and the strong ties they forged to make a life in the homosexual community.
Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault directs with an eye toward including the audience by seating about a dozen people at tables on the floor, providing a semi-immersive, "you are there" experience. The actors mill about before the official start of the show, emulating the camaraderie among the barflies, and Daigneault's blocking allows them to continue to casually interact with the audience. It gets a little cramped during some of choreographer Alessandra Valea's more energetic dance numbers, but it seems a fair trade to achieve verisimilitude. Also contributing to the appropriate ambience are the garish and kitschy details of Abby Shenker's scenic design; disco era costumes (tight bell bottom pants, tank tops, wide lapels) designed by Dustin Todd Rennells; Abigail Wang's design for the club lighting that ranges from colorful to dangerously dim, sometimes reflecting off an obligatory disco ball; and sound designer Elektra T. Newman's loud, pulsing beats. Kudos to props master Kaitlyn Burke for procuring enough '70s ephemera to pump up the nostalgia factor.
The View UpStairs starts and ends in the present as the story of Wes (J'royce Jata), a young fashion designer and "influencer" breaking free from New York for a new opportunity. He purchases an abandoned building, sight unseen, in NOLA, with the intention of creating a fashion empire and becoming a "#householdname." As he dives into planning his renovation, 2017 merges with 1973 and the denizens of the bar come out of the woodwork, as it were. They are naturally mistrusting the stranger in their midst, especially since many of them are in the closet, and Wes wonders just what was in that moonshine the bartender gave him. There's a fair amount of dialogue that incorporates the time traveler from the future knowing things that the others can't even imagine (gay marriage, for instance), and, conversely, his unfamiliarity with the legal ramifications of being a practicing homosexual back in the day. However, most of it is used as an important framing device to remind (or inform) the audience of what used to be, and perhaps serve as a caution to watch our collective steps going forward.
The ensemble is evenly divided between those making their SpeakEasy Stage debuts and others who have been with the company before. They perform as a tight-knit group, seamlessly portraying the relationships among the men who frequent the UpStairs Lounge, the venue easily categorized as their home away from home. Buddy, the piano player, is the elder statesman and well aware of the proper way to play the game. He tries to be the voice of reason when a cop (Michael Levesque) comes in and starts trouble. Will McGarrahan gives a sympathetic performance as the only married man in the group who may have more to lose than the others. Russell Garrett (Richard) is the other mature voice in the room and leads prayer services that help the men feel connected to God and each other.
Jata inhabits the multi-faceted Wes and has the vocal chops to do justice to their solos, as well as a duet with their love interest, Patrick (Eddie Shields). Shields is well-known for a trio of roles at SpeakEasy (three IRNE nominations, and one win) and continues his fine work here. Jared Troilo (Dale) seethes as the hustler who can't connect, Shawn Verrier (Freddy) is a spirited drag queen, and Davron S. Monroe (Willie) is the flamboyant one. In a show that is decidedly focused on the men in the room, Yewande Odetoyinbo is impossible to ignore as the butch lesbian bartender who takes no guff, and Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda (Inez/Realtor) is wise, fiery, and mom to all. Individually and collectively, the ensemble is made up of great voices and they powerfully put over Vernon's "glam" rock score. Adam Bokunewicz is the music director, but Eli Schildkraut conducts and plays keyboard with three other musicians seated upstage, just beyond the windows of the lounge.
Despite knowing the dark outcome of the story going in, The View UpStairs manages to entertain and uplift us for the most part. It conveys some important gay history without being pedantic, and Vernon really emphasizes the communal nature of the experiences shared by the patrons of the UpStairs Lounge. With all of the gains and progress made by the LGBTQ population, looking back at the way things were raises the question of what has been lost along the way. There are no easy answers and the debate will continue, even as new battles rage on the equality front. If there is one thing to be learned from the Stonewall Uprising and from Vernon's musical, it is the need for the community to come together in strength.
Photo credit: Nile Scott Studios (The cast of The View UpStairs)