BWW Review: THE VIEW UPSTAIRS at New Conservatory Theatre Centre
Max Vernon's new musical The View UpStairs sees its Bay Area premiere in Ed Decker's appealing production at the New Conservatory Theatre. This is a time-traveling tale that allows multiple generations of the gay community to intermingle and confront the complexities of building queer communities throughout the ages in the charming UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, the site of one of the most violent incidents in the gay liberation movement of the 1970s.
With two smash Off-Broadway hits in as many years, Vernon here displays a natural talent for storytelling with a vibrant score, easily melding from poppy ballads ("What I Did Today" is a highlight) to torch songs like "World Outside These Walls" as his characters reveal how and why they've made the lounge their home. A self-absorbed present-day designer Wes (Nick Rodrigues) finds himself transported back to 1973, setting up an intriguing clash between the modern app-driven gay culture and the cruising, back-alley scene of yesteryear. Vernon raises some interesting questions, as today's queer community struggles to define its identity without the common enemies of the AIDS epidemic and widespread public oppression. Yet the piece's move from broad comedy to abject tragedy feels unearned, and the characters too frequently fall into caricatures. Ostracized loner Dale (Chris Morrell) tugs at the heart strings in "Better Than Silence," but the reason for his exclusion is never explained, and the others are never forced to confront the way their "Some Kind of Paradise" has a hierarchy of its own.
Decker directs his cast with a real sensitivity and heart that builds a palpable sense of community among the bar patrons. Rodrigues brings a sharp wit to Wes as we interpret this world through his eyes. As Wes' love interest, Patrick, Coleton Schmitto is charismatic and moving with a stellar voice. Anthony Rollins-Mullens is a highlight as Willie, a gentleman of a certain age who revels in the promise of a world post-Stonewall, while still wistfully looking back to his experiences growing up in an era without gay bars. Linda Dorsey is incredibly powerful as Inez, a woman willing to sacrifice anything for her drag queen son, Freddy (a hilarious and lovable JESSE CORTEZ).
Devin Kasper's impressive set transports us to the New Orleans lounge, complete with a framed Burt Reynolds Cosmo centerfold. Wes Crain's period costumes are quirky and fun, and Mike Post's strong lighting design carefully navigates our journey through time.
There's a lot to love about this production, and the score alone by an up-and-coming theatremaker is worth witnessing. This is a touching tribute to a bygone era that helped define our community and a call to action for today's generation to ensure "The Future Is Great."
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