BWW Review: THE VIEW UPSTAIRS at Circle Theatre
When told the right way, stories about historically significant events that impact a community bring about intense emotion and inspiration. In the past fifty years alone, the LGBTQ community has been touched by such events that have shaped their lives and even impacted an entire movement.
The tragic 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar, is one such incident. This targeted anti-gay strike resulted in the deaths of 32 people and was, until the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the deadliest assault on a gay club in U.S. history.
The story of this horrendous act and its gay and lesbian victims plays out with intensity, heart, and grace in Circle Theatre's production of Max Vernon's THE VIEW UPSTAIRS.
While the tragedy is the basis for this story, it's the lives of the patrons inside that we follow in this captivating tale. We meet Wes (Kevin Webb), a young fashion designer from 2017, who buys an abandoned building in New Orleans' French Quarter. Through a bad drug trip, he finds himself transported to the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. Wes is introduced to the colorful and endearing group inside, and the different generations teach other about what life is like in their eras. It shows us how far the community has come and serves as a guide for the uncertainty of current times.
In the middle of Wes' journey is Patrick (Averis I. Anderson) who charms the seemingly self-involved young man from the future. As the bond between the two grows, Wes is also woven into the fabric of the group who share personal accounts of their struggles, hopes, and fears. In the end, they physically fade in the tragedy but leave an impression on Wes who vows to keep their memories and courage alive.
Vernon has refined the book of this Chicago premiere (the show ran off-Broadway in 2017) from the workshopped version of this piece that I saw many years ago. The characters that he has chosen to highlight are a wonderful collection of strong personalities. While not a completely memorable score, several songs like "World Outside These Walls," "Are You Listening, God?" and "Theme Song" are incredibly moving and sung with exquisite skill. They are certain to send a chill through you.
Under the swift and steady director of Derek Van Barham, the stage is constantly energized. In one picture after the next, Van Barham expertly provides vivid snapshots of this spirited congregation.
Webb shines as Wes with a performance grounded in sincerity, wit, and wonder. Whether he's incredibly animated or completely still, Webb's emotions pour out and envelop us at each turn. Standouts in this terrific cast include Frederick Harris as Willie who leaves us wanting more of his dazzling tales and Rubén Meléndez Ortiz as Freddy, the construction worker turned drag queen, who exemplifies the entire group's enviable courage. When united in song, the gifted ensemble fills the space with an impressive and gorgeous sound.
The six musicians led by Jeff Bouthiette, (who also plays the bar's resident pianist, Buddy), have a richness that compliments the cast well. At times, I wished for a slightly softer sound, as some lyrics were lost under the band's volume. Choreographer Jon Martinez finds creative ways for the cast to move with exuberance and ease in a tight space. Decorated perfectly, Jimmy Jagos' set immerses us in 70's pop culture and kitsch.
For the LBGTQ community, THE VIEW UPSTAIRS provides a history lesson but also serves as a wake-up call. Yes, the community has come far in many ways. But with the 2016 election, many of those strides are now put in question. With uncertainty, comes fear and anxiety, but also an energy that should never die. THE VIEW UPSTAIRS reminds us that the fight goes on and backing down is definitely not an option.
THE VIEW UPSTAIRS runs through July 22 in The Broadway at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets on sale now at www.circletheatrechicago.org