THE VIEW UPSTAIRS by Max Vernon is the first full-on musical at The Desert Rose Playhouse directed and choreographed by its new Artistic Director, Robbie Wayne. The musical is mostly set in 1973 and is inspired by an actual arson attack in New Orleans at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter, which claimed the lives of 32 people trapped inside. I say “inspired by” rather than “based on” because much of the musical is about the lives, hopes and fears of the fictionalized individuals who were at the bar that night. And what an assortment of characters it is!
There’s the bar’s owner Henri (Ceisley Jefferson) who is not shy about grabbing a baseball bat when patrons get a bit unruly. A regular at the bar is Freddy (Anthony Nannini) who works in drag under the name Aurora and his adoring mother Inez (Siobhan Velarde) who is saddened by the fact that her son is a prettier woman than she ever was. Usually found at the piano is Buddy (Ben Reece) who happens to be a married dad and lies to his wife all the time as to his actual whereabouts. Then there’s the younger and almost too pretty boy Patrick (Matt E. Allen), and Dale (Jacob Samples) the hustler who has seen better days and feels completely shunned by gay society. Willie (DarRand Hall) the resident queen with the quips is apparently a permanent fixture at the bar. Rounding out the patrons is Rita Mae (Ruth Braun) who runs a make-shift chapel at the bar for everyone who feels rejected by their own church. Crashing into the festivities with a heavy hand at the ready with the handcuffs is a cop (Miguel Arbalo) as quick to be on the take as he is to threaten violence.
There is one more patron at the bar that night, Wes (Van Angelo), but how he got there is most unusual. The play begins in present day New Orleans where Wes has just bought the charred and derelict remains of the building which once was home to the bar. Walking through his newly purchased space, this hopeful 21st Century fashion designer and avid social media user is suddenly transported back to the bar on that fateful night in 1973 complete with no cellphone service but all the clothes, décor and hairstyles that thankfully never made it out of the 70’s. As the patrons interact with Wes, he is angered by their passivity when faced with all the prejudice and hatred shown to them and other members of the LGBTQ community in those days, especially in the South. He does everything he can to raise their consciousness and show them that there is another choice. And as this is a musical, there has to be a love story somewhere within the script. And in this one it is Wes falling madly in love with Patrick.
One by one the patrons tell their stories to Wes (and to us), often in song with some very funny dialogue offsetting some of the more poignant and rousing moments of the play. But it all comes to a lethal halt as the arsonist’s work tears through the building claiming the lives of almost everyone there with the exception of one who managed to crawl through the window bars to safety and Wes who is whisked back to the present day and is now determined to make the building shine again and be the new home for his fashion designs.
The immersive set designed by Bruce Weber truly turns the entire theatre into part of the bar including several bar tables used as seating for audience members. Phil Murphy’s lighting is, as always, on the money and perfectly complements the action and emotion onstage. Robbie Wayne’s direction keeps the show moving at just the right pace while his choreography keeps even the non-dancers in the show moving like pros.
Despite some flaws in the script, such as why was Wes transported back in time in the first place and how did he get back as well as the tendency of the playwright to fall back on gay stereotypes of the 70’s, and a couple of weak songs with even weaker lyrics, the play still works. Several of the songs are quite good, such as “Some Kind of Paradise” which the cast delivers with energy and punch. THE VIEW UPSTAIRS has enough good things going for it that there is an easy assumption that its playwright, Max Vernon, will have a solid future in American Theatre.
THE VIEW UPSTAIRS runs now through March 31, 2019 at the Desert Rose Playhouse. For more information or to order tickets go to www.desertroseplayhouse.org