Though a program note explains that all of the characters in The View UpStairs are fictitious, “the events that inspired the musical are real.” What makes those events particularly significant is that the UpStairs Lounge, where the inferno occurred, served as the meeting place for the Metropolitan Community Church, which was the first gay church, founded in Los Angeles five years earlier.
The bar’s residents in the musical are assembling even as some of us are still taking our seats in the audience. But then the show quickly comes alive with Buddy, the Lounge’s regular piano player, tinkling out “Some Kind Of Paradise,” which is sung by the entire company and emerges as the musical’s rousing anthem. (It’s also reprised near the end of the intermissionless show.)
The story doesn’t waste any time immediately jumping ahead to “Now.” Wes, a fashion designer and essentially the lead character, is seeing the damaged lounge for the first time, even though he’s already put money down to transform it into his couture studio. As he sings, “Everything has to be torn down and plastered over desperately.” Then, when he pulls down an old dilapidated drape, the twenty-something Wes is just as suddenly if inexplicably transported back 54 years ago to the day that the fire occurred.
“I’m from the future,” Wes tells Patrick, a young hustler and regular at the UpStairs Lounge, before adding that the Berlin wall is going to fall, Nixon is going to resign, “Michael Jackson is going to be white” and the president “is going to be orange.” Wes also says, early on, “It’s like I’m in a music video for the Village People.”
The songs by Max Vernon are rather reminiscent of the Bee Gees and mild disco mode music. Vernon’s lyrics are occasionally more effective than his book for View UpStairs, which spins out of control as it moves in too many directions. Its attempt to draw connections with the Trump era today seem particularly misguided, not to say, misspent.
While any number of subplots swirl around the show’s ten characters, the main story focuses on a developing relationship between Wes and Patrick, all of which comes to naught since, as we know from the beginning, they’re soon going to perish. Both as written and performed, the other more colorful characters include Inez (Nancy Ticotin who evokes a sassy Chita Rivera in both demeanor and attitude) and her son Freddy (Michael Longoria), whom she helps get into drag for a number he sings at the lounge. Inez even sings: “God answered my prayer, but why is it fair/My son looks better in makeup than me?”
But the cast apparently proves interchangeable: at the performance reviewed, two of the players (Ben Mayne and Benjamin Howes) were in different roles, and the character of Richard, who leads the group in a prayer meeting (“Are You Listening God”), became Rita, who was portrayed by April Ortiz, instead of Howes, who was now Buddy. Jeremy Pope is a solid Wes, and Ben Mayne stood in for Taylor Frey as Patrick. The rest of the hard-working cast is comprised of Frenchie Davis, Nathan Lee Graham, and Richard E. Waits.
No matter what you think of the rest of the production, you have to be impressed by the realistic set, designed by Jason Sherwood, which really puts you in the midst of the Upstairs Lounge from yesteryear, with striking period details such as an old-fashioned jukebox, a McGovern/Shriver decal, and a soda machine (with an “out of order” sign on it). Equally impressive are the always-apt costumes by Anita Yavich, and the busy but effective lighting design by Brian Tovar. And Jason Hayes well earns the program credit he receives for hair, wig and makeup Design.”
Though there isn’t much choreography (by Al Blackstone), the show is all overseen with a certain amount of flare by director Scott Ebersold. In the end, however, you may find yourself wishing that Ebersold had more of a say in restraining Vernon’s over-expansive ambitions.
The View UpStairs (through May 21, 2017)
Invisible Wall Productions
Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-broadway or visit http://www.TheViewUpStairs.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission