Tragedy inspires art, or so goes the saying. In light of recent events — most prominently the mass shooting at gay nightclub Pulse — a musical about violence towards the LGBT community is particularly relevant. While provocative, the new musical about the second deadliest attack on gay clubs in U.S. history showcases the struggle for equality and the unintended consequences.
“The View UpStairs” is a rock musical that centers precisely on the setting of the tragedy, a lively gay bar in 1970s New Orleans called the UpStairs Lounge. The protagonist, Wes (Jeremy Pope), is a present-day designer who is considering buying the building where the tragedy occurred. He is transported back in time to when the club was in its peak. The set transforms into a brightly lit and eclectic club full of kitschy mementos where part of the audience is interspersed throughout the set.
Wes’ time-traveling abilities provide some humor in the show as the ’70s characters question his futuristic fashion choices and surveillance-capturing iPhone. Thinking it is all a hallucination, Wes decides to engage with the bar community and in doing so, becomes very close, especially to hustler Patrick (Taylor Frey). Their relationship is a comedic romance scattered with deeper and darker themes as they, along with the bar’s family battle mental and societal pressures not just from outsiders, but also from each other.
Wes’ naiveté in thinking issues for the LGBT community have been resolved since the 70s, is revealed as the show progresses. “The View UpStairs” does an excellent job in demonstrating this conflict and Wes’ eventual realization of improvements, but also major faults. While the play effectively calls for the audience to ponder and reflect on several messages, it unfortunately skims too lightly over the issue of mental health by using it as a plot device with no further analysis.Where the play is strongest is in its emotional aspect, particularly when the past weaves with the present and Wes’ final monologue reveals the pain felt by the community due to recent anti-LGBT actions. His raw emotion, tears and anger are visibly genuine and not acted. The show is also successful in its spirit and music. Catchy songs, like “Some Kind of Paradise,” are sung by a superbly talented cast consisting of Frenchie Davis, Nathan Lee Graham, Benjamin Howes, Michael Longoria, Ben Mayne, Randy Redd and Nancy Ticotin.
The original play was created by playwright and lyricist Max Vernon, alumnus of the New York University graduate Musical Theatre Writing program. He cites lacking knowledge of such a heinous crime while being a Gender and Sexuality Studies student as a reason to create the musical. In a musical sneak peek conversation held weeks prior to the show, Vernon explained the significance of the UpStairs Lounge by comparing it to today’s technology. He explained that the prevalence of dating apps for queer people has facilitated the process of finding a community, and more importantly an adopted family. In the ’70s, lacking internet and mobile phones, this process was far more difficult and so places that were established queer meeting spaces, like the Upstairs Lounge, bore a far greater significance.
”The View UpStairs” is playing Off-Broadway at The Lynn Redgrave Theater at 45 Bleeker St. until May 21.