The View UpStairs opened Off-Broadway last night. Jonathan Larson Grant recipient Max Vernon is the writer of the book, music, lyrics, and vocal arrangements. He has proven himself to be a musical theater wunderkind, so this show has been well hyped and is eagerly anticipated. For entertainment reasons, The View UpStairs doesn’t disappoint, but the uneven book and lyrics leave audiences wanting something more on an intellectual level.
The new musical is inspired by New Orleans’s UpStairs Lounge. Historically, on the last Sunday in June 1973, an arson attack at the French Quarter gay bar killed 32 people. The only entrance to the bar was up a wooden flight of stairs, which were set on fire. As the stairs burned, the buzzer from downstairs sounded. The door of the bar was opened, and the oxygen deprived flames burst into the bar. Until the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse, this was the largest mass murder of gays and lesbians in the United States.
In The View UpStairs, Wes, a fledging fashion designer escaping New York City, has purchased the historic building. He plans to demolish it and build a flagship store for his fashion brand on the corner of Chartes and Iberville Streets. After taking a bump of cocaine in what was once the UpStairs Lounge, he is transported back to Sunday, June 24, 1973 and is introduced to a cast of characters who were regulars at the bar. As they celebrate their lives and community, he gets to know these people in what is ultimately their final hours.
Vernon relies heavily on clichés in the show, creating a queer Cheers for self-obsessed Wes (Jeremy Pope) to discover himself in and explore. You have presumably lesbian butch bartender Henri (Frenchie Davis), the pretty boy with a backstory Patrick (Taylor Frey), the quip-laden old queen Willie (Nathan Lee Graham), the warm and welcoming religious gay man Richard (Benjamin Howes), the effeminate and sassy Puerto Rican drag queen Freddy (Michael Longoria), the hustler with a heart of gold who feels ostracized by his community Dale (Ben Mayne), the artistic gay man with a wife and children at home Buddy (Randy Redd), the doting single mother who was abandoned by her husband when he discovered their son was gay Inez (Nancy Ticotin), and the corrupt and violent cop (Richard E. Waits).
These archetypes lend themselves to Vernon’s rehashing of familiar situations throughout the work. As the modern man, Wes slings jokes about Trump, hook-up apps, and even puts on sunglasses to "read" Patrick. Through Wes, Vernon hits the audience over the head repeatedly with the notion that social media and hook-up apps have made modern people indubitably more shallow, more self-centered, and less able to truly connect with other people. We have to see the naked pictures of our tricks before we’ll allow ourselves to see them naked in person. We obsess over how many Instagram followers we have and how many likes each post gets. In doing this, we miss out on the perfectly imperfect semblance of community from the early days of the post-Stonewall era.
Despite the stock characters and situations, Vernon’s work with Scott Ebersold’s direction and the cast’s performances do stir emotions in the audience. Meeting as a congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, Howes leads the cast in “Are You Listening God.” The song’s lyrics about desperately needing a miracle reverberate through the channels of time and space, making them deeply applicable to both 1973 and 2017. Similarly, every time Davis and Graham open their mouths to talk or sing, they own the stage with presence and power. They bring depth and relevance to their characters, making them the true highlights of the evening. Additionally, I found Redd’s portrayal of Buddy deeply moving on a personal level and highly effective.
Jason Sherwood’s scenic design encapsulates the entirety of the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, allowing the assembled audience to feel as if they too are denizens of the UpStairs Lounge. Capitalizing on the current trend of immersive theater, some audience members are seated at bar tables that members of the cast visit, other chairs and spaces in the main seating area are left open for the cast to use, and the aisles also serve as part of the performance space. However, Ebersold underutilizes the immersive technique, causing this application of the genre to feel gimmicky. Moreover, Justin Stasiw’s sound design in the space trips over the immersive elements causing lyrics to be completely lost in the patchy sound mixing throughout the venue.
Simply put, The View UpStairs is not a perfect show. Yet, with this piece, Vernon shows potential and promise. In the moments when the book, lyrics, music, and production values coalesce, Vernon latches on to the drive and pure energy of shows like Rent. In these successful moments, the musical proves itself to be timely and relevant. In the moments when the show falls flat, the audience is at least entertained, even if they long for something with more substance and more oomph.
Tickets for The View UpStairs are on sale through May 21. For more information, theviewupstairs.com.