The View UpStairs
After a purgatory season of benefit concerts, workshops, tryouts, a torrid of social media campaigns, podcast interviews, print media appearances, several online magazine editorials and shameless self-promotion in preparation for its off-Broadway premiere, Max Vernon's "The View UpStairs" finally makes a glitter-soaked splash at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in collaboration with The Culture Project.
Synonymous with monochrome and melancholy (previous productions include Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's "The Exonerated"), the space has been transformed into a radioactive mausoleum of Technicolor and razzle-dazzle. A set with this amount of high energy, not to mention an array of political connotations, hasn't been celebrated since, I shudder to say, 2008?
In that year, future legend Lin-Manuel Miranda wowed audiences with the vibrant and buoyant "In The Heights" and downtown luminary Stew unleashed the singular and transcendent "Passing Strange." Both productions highlighted the 'other,' documenting narratives that included multiethnic people through the lens of the Afro-Caribbean and Latinx experience in America and abroad.
Ironically, 2008 also marked the legendary presidential campaign that led to Barack Obama inheriting the White House. Also, the first major run-throughs of the ultimate anti-Bush chef-d'oeuvre, Green Day's "American Idiot," received the limelight for a Broadway bound production.
The irony is not lost in the 2016-2017 theater season, with various shows like Universes' "Party People" and Meshell Ndegeocello's "Can I Get A Witness: The Gospel of James Baldwin." These shows indicate a startling undercurrent of disenfranchisement that echoes from the embryonic fury of modern-day flower power social justice warriors in the era of Donald J. Trump.
Illuminating the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in United States history prior to the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fl, Vernon's "The View UpStairs" is a searing indictment of progress in the U.S. Like Jonathan Larson's legendary "Rent" before it, which was itself an exposé of Ronald Reagan's America, "The View UpStairs" is a quintessential star-spangled civil rights kiss-off; it may also be the first great post-Trump musical of the 21st Century.
Played by foxy rising star Jeremy Pope at the peak of his powers, Wes, a present-day fashionista New Yorker, signs realtor permits and comes into ownership of the UpStairs Lounge, now a dilapidated enclave covered in graffiti with rotted floorboards, vermin infestation and water damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Gregarious but insufferable, Wes is a poster child of the entitled, rancid Hell's Kitchen snow fairy, who has a fixation with his Instagram following and brand recognition. Wes is intent on renovating the faded lounge bar, located within the second floor of a third-story building in the French Quarter of New Orleans, between Chartres and Iberville Streets, and reinventing it as the flagship location of his haute couture style boutique, relinquishing the history of the establishment forever. So, perhaps it's kismet that he's dragged kicking and screaming to Sunday, June 24, 1973, hours before 32 victims lives were lost to an arson attack that torched the bar-lounge that also doubled as the nucleus of the Metropolitan Community Church, a pro-LGBT outreach ministry.
Wes is introduced to a menagerie of sundry, exotic queer prototypes: Serving the drinks is tough as nails but magnanimous butch lesbian bar proprietress Henri (played by fierce lioness Frenchie Davis). Leading prayer is benevolent priest and spiritual leader Richard (played with warmth by Benjamin Howes).
Conflicted with living his truth, debonair and famed-starved Buddy is the resident pianist, played with earnest gravitas by Randy Redd. Then there's larger-than-life sage and pop diva missionary Willie, played with delicious verve by Nathan Lee Graham. A construction worker by day, bubbly first-generation Puerto Rican Freddy moonlights as drag queen Aurora Whorealis (played by a chameleon Michael Longoria). Freddy's supportive mother Inez (played by Nancy Ticotin, heartwarming) is his stylist; and homeless aging streetwalker Dale (played by a reticent though remarkably enthralling Ben Mayne) is a pariah who wants a sense of community and belonging.
Among these rough and rowdy denizens, Wes catches the eye of bubble butt beefcake boy next door Patrick (played with a quiet strength by Taylor Frey), a runaway hustler whose been on his own since he was 14, and the two fall for each other fast. But could it last? Who could say?
With nods to "A Chorus Line" and William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," the show is revelatory. As the night crawls along, social media savvy glam queen Wes learns about the individual barflies and how they became regulars; each story is more entertaining, if not perturbing, than the last. The bar is more like a sanctuary for misfits than a local watering hole.
Irrefutably, the production and the narrative get a lot of help from that stage. Set designer Jason Sherwood has spared no detail in his recreation of the kitschy, honky-tonk glitz of the early 1970s: blood-red velvet drapes hanging over honeycomb window blinds and scarlet flocked wallpaper covered in murals of gay icons (Dionne Warwick, Divine, Dolly Parton, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman).
A white decoupage piano occupies center stage in this semi-immersive theatre, with a collage of pop culture mavens glued on: Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Elton John, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Bette Midler's The Divine Miss M, among others. Political leaders like Malcolm X are hung up too, as well as a George McGovern campaign poster.
Hidden messages written on the walls by the cast and crew can also be seen; there's also a photo of actor Taylor Frey's nude body. A chandelier candelabra made of neon phallic erotica hangs like a cloud over the piano. From a 1972 Cosmopolitan magazine that instantly sold 1.5 million copies, a nude cutout of Hollywood heartthrob Burt Reynolds sprawling on a bearskin rug is strapped to a far window, exulted like a well-defined hirsute amoretto.
There's even a leather-studded jockstrap outside the bathroom. With ethereal light design via beer signs by Brian Tovar and spellbinding costume design by Anita Yavich, this production is an eye-popping emotional roller coaster for the visual senses.
The aforementioned images impact the score at various levels and many of the characters' back-stories are explored through song. The score, a jambalaya of sexed-up tunes, is drenched in the sounds of honky tonk (the bouncy "Lost And Found"), power pop (the snap-along friendly "The Future Is Great"), soft rock (the heaven-sent "Crazy Notion"), salsa (the shimmy-inducing "Most Important Thing"), glam rock (the blood-pumping "Sex On Legs") and soul (the funk-driven standout "The World Outside These Walls"). Melisma master Pope, soul siren Davis and rock vocal virtuoso Longoria astonish.
Sung by an outstanding cast, perhaps the most fabulous of the actors is Vernon's muse, cabaret artist Nathan Lee Graham. In this role as the eccentric fan-waving Willie, Graham is without a doubt creating the role of a lifetime, conjuring the dramatic flair of Dame Shirley Bassey, the opulence of Diana Ross, Eartha Kitt's cat-like purr and Leontyne Price's eloquence with a touch of canny cartoonish chintzy. None of this feels inauthentic.
Nevertheless, this production is not perfect. The microphones drop out depending on an actor's given projection, and sound design fluctuates uncontrollably, with lyrics not being heard due to the volume of the orchestra led by conductor/keyboard player James Dobinson. Some jokes also do not land based on punctuation of a musical note.
And as a story, there are moments where the audience has to wait too long for the build-up; particularly in the show's second half where the audience has to wait 20 minutes for a particular costume change. It's worth the wait, and Vernon does great work covering the delay with two stellar songs, but that doesn't mean audience members aren't antsy.
Make no mistake however, as a show, "The View UpStairs" has all of the ingredients for an iconic cult phenomenon. But that's not to say that this delightfully polarizing show, written by a millennial for Generation Me, is for everyone. In fact, for those who believe musicals should not be escapist and apolitical, this may not be the show for you.
This little show has transmogrified in the years leading to its off-Broadway debut, given the earth-shattering cultural transferences that influenced the current rendering of this musical: Gay marriage legalized, the Pulse nightclub shooting, and the presidential election of Donald J. Trump.
Not only is this a show about the necessary historical excavations young gay people have perform to understand their persecution and how to fight it, this is a show about the generation forced inherit a world in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the revival of the Woman's Rights Movement, too.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of this show is the depth to which Vernon's social awareness and acute sensitivity is. Not only is the cast an assembled party of diverse multicultural and multiethnic talent, but also the story's protagonist, somewhat of a stand-in for Vernon himself, is told through a black gay male perspective.
Many of Vernon's contemporaries, one could say most of them, tend to monopolize LGBTQIA narratives through a white male gaze, especially stories that end in plague or tragedy such as this story. But Vernon subverts that by tackling contemporary concerns such as immigration, cultural assimilation, conversion therapy, queer cultural pluralism, homophobia and homonegativity.
Even more startling, at the show's climax, actor Richard E. Waits who plays two different cops, one in 1973 and the other in 2017, declares that "It Gets Better." Does it?
Last June, just as a national LGBT Pride season was underway, Omar Mateen entered Pulse nightclub in Orlando, gunning down 49 people. Vernon believes so.
"The ending is still mine to write," Wes sings. He's got a point. So, gather your torches, raise your voices and take to the streets or log off Grindr, grab a drink at your favorite gay bar and make a few connections. That is what the view looks like upstairs. Complacency is a trap.
"The View UpStairs" runs through May 21 at The Lynn Redgrave Theater at The Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-925-1806 or visit http://www.cultureproject.org/