The View Upstairs
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Celebration Theatre at the Lex
Through October 29
The Upstairs Lounge was a lively and popular New Orleans gay bar till 1973, when an arsonist doused the stairs leading to the club with lighter fluid, set it aflame, and then rang the doorbell. In the ensuing blaze, 32 people were killed — mocked and ridiculed even in death, and refused burial by local churches because of their sexuality.
Now receiving its West Coast premiere, Max Vernon’s The View Upstairs — he wrote book, music and lyrics —is a fantasy commemorating that awful event. In it, Wes (Matthew Hancock), a young fashion designer, buys the abandoned, burned-out space with the intention of opening a trendy boutique. Once he has claimed possession of the premises, the victims of the fire come out of the woodwork to show him what the club was like in its heyday. (Don’t ask how this occurs: this is a fantasy and logic is in short supply.) They reveal not only their solidarity as a gay community, but also the oppressive forces that lined up against them — the prevailing violence and prejudice, as well as the rampant police brutality and shakedowns.
As the show progresses, we are introduced to the denizens of the club. Buddy the house pianist (music director and keyboard man, Jake Anthony), Henri (Benai Boyd), the woman bartender, Patrick (Darren Bluestone), the idealistic hustler, drag performer Freddy (Rehyan Rivera) and his supportive mother Inez (Chala Savino), and the stylish and queenly Willie (Pip Lilly), among others. When they are roughed up and robbed by a bigoted cop (Travis York), Wes assures them that things will get better — which he knows because he is from the future. And a romance across time blossoms between Wes and hustler Patrick.
The show works best when it is content to be a good-time musical that features 15 songs, providing a rich and varied showcase for the members of the ensemble. Along the way, it reminds us of how dangerous gay life could be as recently as 1973. It pays an eloquent tribute to the 32 people who died in the fire. And at the end it provides a glamorous and glitzy fashion show, courtesy of costume designer Michael Mullen.
Director Michael A. Shepperd delivers a lively, colorful and fast-paced production. And he has assembled a terrific ensemble. Particularly noteworthy are Bluestone as Patrick, Boyd as Henri, Lilly as Willie, Rivera as the athletic Freddy, and Savino as the tolerant and resourceful Inez.
Alex Calle designed the evocative set; Jake Anthony lent expert musical direction while performing as well as leading the able and enthusiastic band.
Celebration Theatre at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Los Angeles. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.