Wednesday, 17 May 2017

THE VIEW UPSTAIRS at the Culture Project

     It would be difficult for young gay folk to imagine how tacky gay bars were in the old days. They were dingy joints but to their denizens they were a safe space--until the police brutally raided or, as in the case of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, the setting for the new musical THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, set ablaze by some raging homophobe. Twenty-nine people died in the fire at that bar in 1973. THE VIEW UPSTAIRS gives us a picture of that bar which, in the early years of gay liberation, was home and church for its regulars; queens, drag queens, closeted married men, hustlers, many of whom had been thrown out of their homes. The musical is also a kind of time travel show. A young gay fashion designer buys the bar in 2017 as a workshop and showroom for his clothes. His world of Grindr, cell phones and anonymous, casual sex isn't much more satisfying than the gay life offered in the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. At least that seedy place, raided regularly by brutal
homophobic police, offered a sense of community.  Alone in his new workshop, Wes (Jeremy Pope), finds himself surrounded by the ghosts of the denizens of the UpStairs Lounge. The cast of characters is a collection of types: homeless hustler, grand Black queen, Latino drag queen and his mother, closeted married man, butch bartender, MCC preacher.
     As is often the case in shows like this, there's a bit too much preaching and victimhood here. The meat of the piece is the contrast between Wes and Patrick (Taylor Frey), the ghost from the past he falls in love with. Their arguments underscore the differences between past and present for young gay men. Wes gets on his moral high horse about Patrick's hustling and Patrick counters that Wes's world of anonymous encounters is too impersonal and no more moral.
     Max Vernon has written the book, music and lyrics. The only two really interesting characters are Wes and Patrick. Everyone else is cardboard. The songs, all character songs, are pleasant and forgettable. Director Scott Ebersold and his designer Jason Sherwood have turned the Lynn Redgrave Theater into a facsimile of the UpStairs Lounge. There are tables in the playing area and the actors use the aisles as well as the stage.
     The cast is a mixed bag. Jeremy Pope was having voice troubles the night we went. He has the right sort of theatrical personality to hold this sprawling show together. Taylor Frey is sweet and sings beautifully -- the best voice in the cast. As Willie, the Black queen, Nathan Lee Graham gives one of the most shameless, self-indulgent performances I have seen in the professional theater, mugging endlessly and milking lines and pauses beyond the breaking point. In my experience, grand old-style queens always had a great sense of timing. Graham doesn't. Awful!
     I guess I'd call THE VIEW UPSTAIRS a noble effort, most interesting in its clash of past and present.

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