“The View UpStairs” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz
If T. S. Eliot is to be believed, April is the cruelest month. But June is arguably the cruelest – and deadliest – month for LGBTQ people. June is when most of this country’s Gay Pride Celebrations joyfully take place, but it’s also seen the two biggest gay massacres in U.S. history. While the murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016 is still fresh in memory, the second most terrible slaughter – the death of 32 people in an arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans on June 24, 1973 – is far lesser-known.
It was a horrific event. One of the first firemen to respond said the victims were “literally roasted alive,” and the morning after, the New Orleans Times Picayune compared the scene to Dante’s Inferno and “Hitler’s incinerators.”
But it was 1973, the UpStairs was a gay bar, and Gay Pride was only a nascent concept. Some of the victims were members of – a few were even clergy of – the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, which conducted its services at the bar. Rev. Troy Perry, who’d founded the church in Los Angeles five years earlier, traveled to New Orleans after the fire to visit the survivors and arrange a memorial service. No politicians attended the service. Indeed, no government official ever even mentioned the fire. The tragedy was ignored, except for the jokes: “Where do you bury the ashes?” “In the fruit jar.”
Against this backdrop, Celebration Theatre has begun its 35th season – with the theme “Be Who You Are No Matter What” – with Max Vernon’s musical The View UpStairs, which resurrects the UpStairs Lounge for the evening and introduces us to some of its patrons. Celebration’s intent is noble, and, as is to be expected, the production is splendid. The author’s intent is also noble, but, alas, the script and score fall short.
Matthew Hancock (L) and Darren Bluestone. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman
Wes (Matthew Hancock) is young, gifted, and black: a high-energy 20-something fashionista who’s decided to buy an abandoned building in 2017 New Orleans and turn it into a fashion hub. He doesn’t lack confidence, but some of it may be the result of the drugs he snorts. Then, before you can say “Presto Change-o,” Wes finds himself transported back to the UpStairs Lounge on June 24, 1973 – the bar occupied part of the building he’s just bought. Is this a hallucination brought on by the drugs? Or that old theatrical narcotic called “suspension of disbelief”? Whatever. After a little bit of “Whoa, it’s 1973?!?” we and Wes get to know the denizens of the bar.
(L-R) Darren Bluestone, Matthew Hancock, Pip Lilly, Pat Towne, Jake Anthony, Benai Boyd, Rehyan Rivera, and Chala Savino. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman
They’re almost all variations on stereotypes we’ve met before: the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, here the hunky but sweet male hustler Patrick (Darren Bluestone); the Tough Dyke with the Tender Center, in this case the bartender Henri (Benai Boyd); the Latin Spitfire Drag Queen (Rehyan Rivera as Freddy), here accompanied by his hard-working mother Inez (Chala Savino), who acts as Freddy’s stylist; the Down Low Married Guy, who’s straight in the streets but gay in the sheets (Buddy, played by Jake Anthony, who also functions as pianist and music director); the African Queen, stylish and campy, with a waspish wit (Pip Lilly as Willie); the Man of God – Richard (Pat Towne), a Metropolitan Community Church pastor who brings comfort to the outcasts; and the Tragic Misfit (Joey Ruggiero as Dale), who’s ignored for the most part, never seems to catch a break, and therefore resents everyone. The cast is rounded out by Travis York, who plays both a present-day cop and his 1973 counterpart.
It’s Celebration Theatre, which, ipso facto, means the actors are good. And the director is Michael A. Shepperd, which means those good actors work hard and give it their all. With the assistance of period-appropriate choreography by Cate Caplin, vibrant music direction by Mr. Anthony, a terrific set by Alex Calle and lighting by Martha Carter, and first-rate costumes by Michael Mullen – a special shout-out for the ghostly-elegant final outfits – Mr. Shepperd has created an energetic and heartfelt production which crackles along and almost manages to overcome the weaknesses of the script and score.
The Company of “The View UpStairs.” Photo: Matthew Brian Denman
Which, unfortunately, are major. It’s never a good idea to make your best musical number – and it is magnificent – the opening. Especially when too many of the songs which follow are not only undistinguished, but also are of the “now it’s my turn to tell you all about myself and my problems” variety. Mr. Vernon wants to give every character his or her moment in the spotlight, but, as a practical matter, such a tactic makes the show diffuse and unfocused, causing it to resemble a historical pageant more than the sort of gripping drama the material could support – and which it demands. And the lines skew toward the banal and overwrought, which can cause even good actors to compensate. On opening night, a few of the actors succumbed. There were moments when there was a little more acting going on than was necessary, which I’m sure will calm down as the run progresses.
That having been said, you should go see The View UpStairs. Flawed though the play may be, the UpStairs Lounge fire is a forgotten part of LGBTQ history, and it’s important to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that 32 people could be violently killed and all it brought from the government and most of society was silence or jokes; actually, given the status of the country today, it’s not too difficult to imagine it happening again.
The Company of “The View UpStairs.” Photo: Matthew Brian Denman
When Troy Perry finally found a church willing to host a memorial for the UpStairs victims, he didn’t know if anyone would show up, but the church was packed. At the end of the service, press and TV cameras were trained on the front door to record who attended, and in 1973, being identified as LGBTQ – or even an ally – could have dire consequences. Rev. Perry told the mourners there was an exit they could use to avoid the cameras. “But nobody left by the backdoor,” he recalled. “And that’s the legacy. We never ran away.”
“Be Who You Are No Matter What.” Celebration Theatre not only gives us art and entertainment, but also a history lesson every now and again. Pay attention.
The View UpStairs
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Max Vernon
Directed by Michael A. Shepperd
Through October 29
Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com