Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: Bringing the Past to the Present to Change the Future

By Michael Block 

When it comes to LGBT history, there seems to be some important stories and events that haven't quite impacted LGBT Millennials. They’re lost in time. The tragic mass shooting in June at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, allowed the tragic events at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973 to resurface and inform the uninformed. The youth of the present learning about the past is the jumping off point of Max Vernon's astonishing The View UpStairs. Present and past intermingle in a time travel story. In the present, a young gay man is about to tear down the historic club. The past resurfaces when the souls of the victims teach him an important lesson.
photo by Kurt Sneddon
It's hard to sell the plot without it sounding gimmicky. If you can get past the time travel as a plot device, Max Vernon offers a unique perspective to tell a tragic story in LGBT history. Inspired by a heartbreaking true story, The View UpStairs follows Wes, a young gay man back in New Orleans, who purchases a building in the French Quarter that he plans to transform into a flagship store for his brand. After stepping foot into his plans for the future, he’s suddenly thrust back into the past. Specifically the night of Sunday, June 24th, 1973. Wes begins to interact with the lively lot as he learns about the space he wants to tear down and the hardships of being a gay man in a time of intolerance. Between knowing the inspiration and the glimmer of foreshadow, the musical ultimately ends with the tragic event of a deliberate arson attack. Max Vernon has scripted an exceptional story with effortless characters that exudes life and love. There’s heartbreak. There’s joy. There’s anger. There’s tenderness. Vernon has managed to provide a spectrum of emotion that will not only entertain, but also inspire conversation. There’s a strong sense of hope through the tragedy. Vernon maintains that the modern cliché holds true: It can get better. And it will get better. The libretto has some holes, but some of these dramaturgical traps can easily be patched up. Most prominently, consistency when it comes to the rules of the world is necessary. Wes seems to acknowledge the time travel at times, but then forget it at points of convenience. The patrons of the UpStairs Lounge sometimes seem to be clairvoyant and other times oblivious to Wes and his presence in their time period. It’s a tricky world to create, but Vernon can undoubtedly overcome the problems to bring this musical to the next level. The characters that Vernon has crafted are vibrant, leaping off the page. Vernon does exemplify a lot of the "bad" in the modern gay community through the character of Wes, but with a beautiful message of hope in the end, perhaps Vernon can instill just the slightest change for gays of today. You eventually learn to love Wes, but it takes a lot of time to warm up to him, since he embodies the social media obsessed youth of today. Even when stereotypes come into play, it’s the personal relationships that keep this musical afloat. Vernon has proficiently created characters you not only can relate to but care for. When it’s their time to ultimately go, you can’t help but feel sad. His score, which ranges from period pop, rock, and funk, soars and keeps the groove vibrant.
The View UpStairs thrives thanks to the community within. The characters have their escape where they can feel pride. And each individual in this company bursts with pride. As Wes, Jeremy Pope didn’t have the strongest of voices, but certainly made up for it in character. Pope’s passion as Wes allowed him to grow and eventually advocate for change. As the token hot and sexy love interest, it’s safe to say that Taylor Frey was perfectly cast. Frey, in a breakout performance, was charming and affable. With a million dollar smile and voice to match, Frey found the beauty within Patrick, the ultimately nameless victim. Frey and Pope had a unique bond. It was a syrupy relationship. Tickling the keys as the keeper of the keys, Randy Redd’s Buddy was one of the most complex and raw characters in the text. Redd left you wanting more from Buddy. Easing into an uproarious campy performance, Nathan Lee Graham was a chameleon of the stage. He switched from scene-stealing diva to fading into the background. It’s a sign of a strong performer knowing when to be "on." Graham’s Willie was the social butterfly you wanted to sip cocktails with. Frenchie Davis as bar owner Henri gave her heart and soul as she showcased her powerhouse instrument. Davis had a captivating grip on Henri, allowing the walls to come down to reveal a striking susceptibility. Michael Longoria as Freddy was a riot. As the resident drag queen, Longoria pulled out all the stops. Ben Mayne went beyond making Dale just the weird hustler that roams the bar looking for a lifeline. Mayne made you worry about Dale. He made you care about Dale. He made you wish “Better Than Silence” was placed a bit earlier in the show. But most importantly, Mayne made you sympathize with Dale despite his actions. And that is no easy feat.
photo by Kurt Sneddon
Let it be said, The View UpStairs is a great work, but what set this musical apart is the magnificent production design. You needed to feel apart of this world and director Scott Ebersold and his creative team went above and beyond. Upon walking into the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, you’re thrust into the UpStairs Lounge. Scenic designer Jason Sherwood completely transformed the space. The atmosphere is alive. You may have watched as the cast of characters mixed and mingled and the night drew to a close, but if you looked around at the intricacies and details in the set dressing, you’ll note just how deep Sherwood went to make this foreign place feel welcoming. String lights wrap around the poles. Streamers hang low. An array of hanging lamps cast warm glows down. Beer bottles line the ceiling. Neon beer signs illuminate the room. Newspapers, books, and an hodgepodge of nostalgia-laden trinkets cover every single nook and cranny. Every square inch of the space was calculated. It’s as immersive as you can get with this sort of play. The lighting design by Brian Tovar was breathtaking. Between the bursts of color to filling the space with haze in order to highlight the beams of light coming from the flashlights, Tovar assisted in making this world mesmerizing. Costume designers love period pieces. There’s fun to be had. Costume designer Anita Yavich fulfilled the fun by dressing the company in retro wear. Wes may have made the dress for Freddy in the show, but Yavich showcased the makeshift eleganza. Al Blackstone’s choreography added to the fun quota, encompassing the entirety of the space. Ebersold brought a community together within the show, but he also did so to create the show.
Stories will never die and this show will surely live on. Max Vernon is the voice of the future. This incarnation of The View UpStairs is not perfect. But it’s absolutely a must see. That's because you'll want to brag that you saw it before it become a monster smash hit.