BWW Review: THE VIEW UPSTAIRS at New Conservatory Theatre Center Follows A Time-Travelling Millennial Back To The Historic Upstairs Lounge In 1973
By Max Vernon
Directed by Ed Decker
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Perhaps in anticipation of June's Gay Pride, director Ed Decker has mounted a production of Max Vernon's musical remembrance of the infamous Upstairs Lounge, a tragic footnote to the tumultuous infancy of the Gay Movement immediately post-Stonewall. When a young gay man purchases a dilapidated brick building on the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets in New Orleans he's transported back to 1973 where he meets the patrons of the discreet gay paradise hidden on the 2nd floor, a space that served as a meeting point, church and gay dive-bar. He meets a wide assortment of customers who teach him a life lesson in finding purpose amidst a complicated, fast-paced modern world.
Wes (Nick Rodrigues) is a shallow, self-absorbed narcissist, pre-occupied with social media 'likes', his cell phone and plenty of bitchy repartee. Totally unlikable and self-loathing and oblivious to the historical value of the structure, his plan is to revamp the building into a fashion house and become famous. Enter the spirits of the past, a motely collection of patrons who, while seeking sanctuary from the hatred and oppression of Deep South homophobia, clash amongst themselves illustrating the early struggles the gay movement experienced with inclusivity and acceptance of all types.
There's Patrick (Coleton Schmitto), a cute hustler with a heart of gold, bitter, jaded lounge singer Buddy (Cameron Weston), butch bartender Henri (Jessica Cocker), Dale (Chris Morrell) a homeless, agitated outsider, Richard (David Bicha) an aging queen and Willie (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) an over-the-top African American man and Freddy (JESSE CORTEZ), a Latino drag queen. It's not all peaches and cream back in the early 70's. The gay movement was just coalescing, and disparate cliques had issues with acceptance. Each character gets a chance to tell their story in song, conflicts arise between the group and Dale, an evil cop (Gary M. Giurbino) represents societies prevailing attitudes towards 'faggots', and Wes and Patrick fall in love.
All this is set in Devin Kasper's intentionally tacky, gaudy and over-done 70's bar. Red velvet curtains, Mardi Gras paraphernalia, old movie posters, Xmas light strings and Burt Reynolds nude Cosmopolitan poster set the scene. Wes Crain dresses these characters in wool sweaters, patterned bell-bottoms and general 70's fashions that are best forgotten. The ensemble and Director Ed Decker have been saddled with a formidable task however, because however earnest the intention of bridging the gap between contemporary gays and their past, Vernon's script and score are a weak link. Mixing glam-rock, gospel and pop, the songs are unmemorable, heavy-handed and seem incomplete, some just trailing off leaving the audience wanting something a little more. The singing, some fine, others uneven and stretched, feels amateurish.
Travelling to the past gets some laughs of course; a cell phone is thrown out a window in a panic and nobody understands Wes' modern millennial pre-occupations. There's a couple of good songs by Patrick and the drag queen's mother Inez, but the score needs work. The characters seem more caricature than authentic and the tragic truth about the bar an after-thought.
The View Upstairs continues through June 9th, 2019 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 941. Tickets and information available at nctcsf.org or by calling (415) 861-8972.E
Photos by Lois Tema