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Theatre in Review: The View UpStairs (Lynn Redgrave Theater)

Michael Longoria, Ben Mayne, Frenchie Davis, Benjamin Howes, Nathan Lee Graham. Photo: Kurt Sneddon.

If Brigadoon were a French Quarter gay bar in the early 1970s, it would look like the watering hole in The View UpStairs. In Jason Sherwood's set design, it's all about the details. The interior, covered with red faux brick and red flocked wallpaper, is loaded with evocative decorative touches, including Mardi Gras beads; faux Tiffany lampshades; colorful globe lamps; miles of garland and tinsel; neon signs for Michelob and Miller beers, Bass Ale, and Camel cigarettes; posters for Cary Grant and Myrna Loy film vehicles; a jukebox with Carole King's latest hit on tap; and, in a special place, the inevitable glamour shot of Judy Garland. This young designer has done his homework.

Looking at the set, I felt like I was traveling back in time; in fact, that's what happens to Wes, the extremely bemused protagonist of Max Vernon's musical. Wes is very much a young man of 2017, an aspiring fashion designer who, having gotten nowhere in New York while running up a crushing credit card debt, has come home to New Orleans; currently ensconced in the attic of his family home, he hopes to turn his life around by buying a disused building and converting it into his flagship store. While inspecting the burned-out interior, Wes -- in the time-honored fashion of musicals going back to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and DuBarry Was a Lady -- finds himself suddenly surrounded by men in strange haircuts and polyester clothes. Or, as he puts it, "It's like I'm in a music video for The Village People."

Yes, it is 1973, Nixon is in the White House, Anita Bryant isn't yet persona non grata, the closet is still a cozy refuge for many, same-sex marriage is as fantastic a notion as the plot of 2001: A Space and there isn't an STD that can't be fixed by a quick shot of penicillin. You'd think a guy who just traveled four decades back in time would be a little disoriented, but, in a matter of minutes, he is urging the patrons to stand up to police abuse and making eyes at Patrick, the in-house cutie, unaware that he is falling in love with a pro, if you know what I mean.

That's pretty much it for the plot of The View UpStairs, which is content to let its one-of-every-kind cast of characters reveal, in song, how they get by in homophobic times. They include Henri, the butch lesbian proprietor; Willie, who is black and the group's wisecracking éminence grise; Freddy, a Puerto Rican drag performer, and Inez, his mother, who does his hair and makeup; Dale, a hustler so desperate he charges discount prices for quick oral sex; Richard, a clergyman who holds services in the bar (a line of dialogue suggests he is affiliated with Metropolitan Community Church, founded in 1968 to minister to the gay community); and Buddy, the piano player, who once had a shot at the big time, and who lies to his wife about where he goes at night.

Most of the action consists of compare-and-contrast discussions of the past and present, with what suspense there is hinging on the question of whether Wes and Patrick will get together. (If you don't know the answer, I suggest that you attend more musicals.) Never unpleasant, and often quite amusing, The View UpStairssuffers from confusion about its intentions, swinging between old-fashioned Golden Girls-ready zingers and acute comments about the scars of prejudice. For example, Freddy enters, lightly bloodied from a hate crime and trailing plenty of grief about his unaccepting father -- but I think most audience members will leave recalling not these sad details but "Sex on Legs," his tear-down-the-house solo, performed wearing a cone bra that shoots confetti.

Also, the main romance basically makes no sense, since Wes and Patrick have known each other for all of fifteen minutes, not to mention the fact that they exist in different time frames. Mostly, the hey there, good times atmosphere holds until the end, when Willie introduces "Theme Song," a rather strenuously uplifting gospel number, followed by a coda that explains why the place was burned out when Wes found it. (The fate of the bar is based on a real arson attack that took place in New Orleans in 1973.) By this point, the characters have begun indulging in so much inspirational speechmaking that what has been a moderately entertaining evening turns just a wee bit tedious. Vernon works hard to fuse the show's frequent salty comedy with a broad historical viewpoint, but much of the time the seams are visible. In the end, The View UpStairs doesn't have a solid enough foundation to support this eleventh-hour voyage into tragedy.

Nevertheless, Vernon's songs are usually easy to take and the best of them are better than that. Both "Some Kind of Paradise" and "Lost or Found?," which draw on a Southern pop-rock style that is very much in period, establish the tonight-we-laugh attitude with brio. "The World Outside These Walls," with the constant refrain, "That's just reality in 1973," mordantly describes the hate awaiting them all on the way home. His lyrics are often clever and have a strong period feel. ("Willie the wise, is our resident sage/And he ain't shy on giving advice/He's the biggest diva to come from the South/Since good ol' Leontyne Price.")The cast, under Scott Ebersold's lively direction, is ready to rock. As Wes, Jeremy Pope is pretty ideal as a neurotic gay man of the early twenty-first century, worrying endlessly about his looks and impatiently explaining the facts of Grindr to his newfound friends. He enjoys strong chemistry with Taylor Frey as Patrick, the latter's charming good-old-boy manner providing a strong contrast with Pope's perpetual state of overdrive. Michael Longoria makes the most of Freddy's show-stopping drag performance. Frenchie Davis supplies some scorching vocals as Henri. Randy Redd's Buddy is an honest depiction of someone entangled in the lies required by his closeted existence. Nathan Lee Graham gets plenty of laughs as Willie; explaining the ins and outs of flirting in the bad old days, he says, "I had to intercept more coded messages than the Allied Forces."

In addition, Brian Tovar's lighting switches confidently between past and present, creating a warmly inviting atmosphere for the bar along with starker, more theatrical looks for many of the musical numbers. Justin Stasiw's sound design is purposely high-powered, yet generally intelligible. Al Blackstone's choreography keeps the energy pumping. Anita Yavich's costumes are an impeccably accurate guide to men's styles of the era.

Overall, The View UpStairs will be best enjoyed by audiences looking for a not-too-demanding evening of high-energy numbers, or by young gays interested in seeing how things used to be. Vernon is something of a new face and I expect he has better things in his future. He's got real songwriting talent, but, on the evidence here, he needs to be auditioning bookwriters. -- David Barbour

(1 March 2017)

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