2.5 out of 4 Stars
After New Orleans firefighters extinguished the conflagration which had devoured the lives of 32 patrons of the Upstairs Lounge in 1973, they found the charred remains of several victims embracing. Later determined to be an act of arson, this would be registered as the most lethal attack on a gay club in America—that is, before the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016. Yet those who once populated the French Quarter haunt are now resuscitated in Circle Theatre’s production of Max Vernon’s musical The View Upstairs. A show full of celebration and love, the musical pays tribute not to the tragic cleaving of the dead, but to their legacy’s embrace of the living.
When 21st century fashion designer Wes (Kevin Webb) snorts some celebratory coke after closing on the purchase of the ash-sodden bar, he falls through a wormhole in the time-space continuum. Intending to convert the bar into a commercial space for his clothing line, he’s instead confronted with the all-too-real ghosts of the building’s past. The members of the ’73 Upstairs Lounge have been shunted off into the darkened corners of society, forming a racially diverse community of prostitutes, closeted husbands, drag queens, the homeless, a queen-mother, and even a minister. Their relationships are defined as much by their intrafamilial dysfunction as they are by their need for acceptance, love, and freedom of sexual expression. Struggling to reconcile his contemporary sensibilities with the post-Stonewall precarity of gay existence, Wes must reassess his own location within the struggle for gay rights and wrestle with the question of just how bright the future—our present—really is.
This fertile premise, however, is a promise only partially fulfilled. Vernon’s script and songbook turns on a thinly developed plot, hung as it is upon character-sketching songs stitched together by brief narrative interludes and campy witticisms. Vernon is so preoccupied with introducing each character that, within a limited 100-minute timespan, they hardly feel known. Upon leaving the theater, there is an impression of their collective charm, but the individual characters remain as faint as their woefully forgotten, historical counterparts. More frustratingly, the forward motion of Wes' arc of self-discovery is consistently diverted.
Yet even that is a caricatured affair. Wes unreflectively personifies vanity, ambition, and social-media addiction. He handles every experience as a brick out of which to construct a brand. Predictably, he suffers from isolation in an age of relentless connectivity. He cannot even encounter a sexual partner’s body without a preliminary dick-pic screening. If Wes lives in a world of glitzy, ever-shifting surfaces, the Upstairs gang represents the depth of friendship forged by longsuffering. The woes of technology fatigue, however, are by now so rehearsed that Vernon’s critique comes off as rote and pedantic. To this technological conservatism I would pose two questions: 1) aren’t virtual spaces at least partially responsible for bringing visibility and discourse to LGBTQ rights?, and 2) how does nostalgia over the pre-smartphone era help navigate the future when the audience will leave and immediately tweet about your show? The romantic subplot that unfolds between Wes and Patrick (a hustler played by the meek-mannered Averis I. Anderson) does not play out much more convincingly: Vernon schematically obeys the love-struck, love-lost, love-reconciled pattern to the tune of flimsy motivations.
Book and lyrics aside, Vernon’s compositions manage to straddle the stylings of the contemporary musical theater and the soul, funk, and glam rock of the 70’s. Under the musical direction of Jeff Bouthiette (who also plays the closeted pianist Buddy), the numbers are skillfully executed by the band. The vocal performances, despite some occasional unevenness, are textured and strong. The choral sections resound with celebratory warmth, while the soloists longingly intone the dreams and hardships that attend their characters. It was unfortunate that many verses (at least from my seat) were garbled and frequently unintelligible—either from poor sound mixing, bad architectural acoustics, or a compounding of the two.
Nonetheless, director Derek Van Barham succeeds in creating a vision of 1973 that is different enough from our own yet credibly familiar, and his stage pictures are never confused by the many bodies onstage. In fact, the relationships in the script benefit from his visual storytelling, as characters clad in high-bohemian style (thanks to Chris Tuttle’s spot-on costume design) canoodle, chatter, or stalk in various corners of the space. The choreography from Jon Martinez creates bursts of kinetic surprise and infectious conviviality, seamlessly navigating a tight space (Jimmy Jagos’ scenic design lives up to Wes’ description of the bar as a “gay Applebee’s meets ‘Hoarders’”). G. Max Maxin IV’s lighting design meanwhile invites us as patrons into the space with warm amber washes that permutate with mood and aptly contract around the narrative.
Many standout performances demand you to sit up straight and listen closely. In a surefire performance, Webb approaches Wes from the right distance. When he makes a fool of himself, we never laugh at him without fondness; when he cites a litany of Trump-era uncertainties, we hear in his voice the tremble of conviction. Caitlin Jackson (as the brusque but nurturing barkeep, Henrietta) and Frederick Harris (as the fabulous, self-mythologizing matchmaker, Willie) ooze natural verve and deliver knockout vocal performances. When Matt Frye enters as a cop from each era, he dynamically telegraphs the heterosexual social forces from beyond the second-story walls of the bar—both the virulent homophobia of the earlier generation and the tolerant sympathies which increasingly define the present.
The strength of the musical lies in its provocation: can it be said that life is better for the gay community 45 years after this violent assault? What can be learned from the past and what could the past learn from us? Time travel allows us to perceive what the philosopher Walter Benjamin termed a “dialectical image” of history. What we see in the time-traveler’s split image of history is both the simultaneity and discontinuities between past and present. The result is that we are disabused of our complacent belief in inevitable historical progress. Vernon gives us this socially and politically urgent view from “upstairs,” refusing to simply accept the assertion that LGBTQ lives benefit from constant, uniform improvement. As the Pulse tragedy and the potential legal fallout from a retiring Supreme Court Justice demonstrates, the threat of catastrophe lurks behind all the apparent differences that distinguish 2018 from 1973. And although Vernon’s thought experiment briefly allows us to escape the myopia of the now, his time-travel machine has its flaws. Yet for some, the community to which they’ll be transported might be meaningful enough to take it for a spin.
The View Upstairs runs through Sunday, July 22. Shows run Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, Saturday and Sundays at 2:30pm, with industry performances every Monday at 8:00pm at The Broadway at Pride Arts Center (4139 N. Broadway). Ticket on sale now at www.circletheatrechicago.org.