The View Upstairs
|Nick Rodrigues & Ensemble Members|
As the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall fast approaches and as we in San Francisco also recall in honor the drag and transgender heroes of the Compton Cafeteria riots of 1966, what better time for us to take every chance to remember those who came before us, to celebrate how far we have come, and to acknowledge how much further we still have to go in terms of GLBTQ equality. New Conservatory Theatre Center anticipates Pride Month with a musical that explores a little-known event of U.S., gay history where a safe haven – a second-floor bar called the Upstairs Lounge – existed in an otherwise homophobic, hostile, 1973 New Orleans. Stirring long-forgotten memories through the strong beats of gospel, glam rock, and pop music along with fervent hints of blues and country western, Max Vernon’s 2017 Off-Broadway The View Upstairs receives its regional premiere at NCTC in an eye-popping, engaging, and emotionally impacting production.
Twenty-something and clearly full of himself and his own self-declared fabulousness, Wes arrives to find the building he is buying to be water-damaged and an overall wreck. But his vision for how he can make over the old brick walls of the second-story cavern into a new destination spot called Home leads him to promise a nervous realtor he is ready to buy. Ripping down one of the tattered, burgundy curtains becomes his first step in the planned transformation.
|Nick Rodrigues & Cast|
But at the first sound of a rip, to his stunned shock the dark becomes twinkly glowing in a myriad of colored lights as a bar of an era past comes to full life, complete with gaudily draped piano, glitz and glitter scattered throughout, and a naked picture of Burt Reynolds on the wall (all part of Devin Casper’s and Daniel Yelen’s totally ‘gay-licious’ scenic and props designs). Even more surprising to the open-mouthed Wes, bar patrons emerge and begin doing what gay men have always done in bars – drinking, looking each other over, and making catty comments – only these men in bell bottoms, neck scarves, and pants of glaring plaids and checks are clearly from several decades prior.
|The Cast of The View Upstairs|
Prior to Wes’ arrival, we have already gotten a glimpse of this collection of glamorous ghosts in the night’s opening “Some Kind of Paradise” as pianist Buddy (Cameron Weston) in big, booming voice has described the temporary ecstasy, the reeking of cheap cologne, and the “rush of lust” that are part of “my favorite escape from the world outside.” Now, the white-mustached, beaming Buddy introduces the still-in-shock Wes to the hodgepodge of the bar’s regulars who all offer in the sung “Lost or Found” a snapshot of who they are while one-by-one joining in a line dance like one might still see at SF’s Sundance on Sunday afternoons (part of the evening’s 70s-reflecting choreography by Rick Wallace). Already we are learning that when this cast sings as a whole, harmonies blend richly and with a gleeful gusto of folk so happy to be together for even a few short hours of safe fun – safe of course until the next police raid. (We also by now are fully appreciating the guitar of Khalil Anthony-Doak, the percussion of Tim Vaughn, and the keyboard of Music Director Kelly Crandell, with the band’s orchestrations by James Dobinson.)
When Wes hears the year is ’73 and Nixon has yet to resign, he is just as confused as are Buddy et al of this handsome stranger in strange duds who talks about phones with cameras, being online, and all his information somewhere in the cloud. But after a drink together served by butch-proud bartender/owner Henri (Jessica Coker with a commanding but big-hearted persona and resonant set of singing vocals), Buddy begins to settle into and thoroughly enjoy the still-inexplicable scene. Future has met past to create a temporary present where Wes begins slowly to blend into the flow of an evening where his life may change forever.
And so with no more pause, the night’s events proceed in a bar that serves as community center, church, dance hall, and night club along with watering hole and a dark corner for making out. Clad in gaily hued clerical robes, Pastor Richard (David Bicha) ecstatically leads a revival worthy choir of patrons in “Are You Listening, God,” with individual, melodic pleas made to God such as “to be myself before I die.”
Former ballet-hopeful Willie gets a chance to demonstrate his “best legs in New Orleans, man or woman” in a number of dance moves before climatically landing with some middle-aged effort on the piano. Later Anthony Rollins-Mullens will bring his gospel-compelling, blues-rich voice to sing what could be the anthem of the Upstairs Lounge, “Theme Song,” in which be sings the eternal hope of these folks who outside this bar live daily in a hostile, prejudiced environment. Willie sings, “But I swear I’ve seen the future shining through the debris, and though we’ve known despair, we’re still standing there unbroken and free.”
|Jesse Cortez, Linda Dorsey & Nick Rodrigues|
Wes gets a chance to use his design skills to create a performing outfit for the evening’s drag star, Freddy, taking random scraps of feathers and materials from the bar along with duct tape to produce Project Runway marvelousness. Freddy arrives having once again been ruffed up by a cop on the street for wearing a wig in public. While Freddy’s accompanying mom, Inez, lovingly covers Freddy’s wounded face with the over-done make-up a drag queen requires, Linda Dorsey sings one of Inez’s two moving songs of the evening, this one being “Completely Overdone.”
Eventually Jesse Cortez appears as the ruby-lipped Freddy covered in Mardi Gras beads, plastic-cup breasts, and former-curtain skirt, performing as “Miss Aurora Whorealis.” (Freddy’s indescribable outfit is just one of the evening’s many gay-and-era-rich wonders designed by the incomparable Wes Crain.) The metamorphosed Freddy struts with the kind of exaggerated moves, gleaming smile, and big vocals any stage queen could hope to have, including a final high-something (high ‘C,” “D,” or ?) that should have broken a near-by crystal glass could the wonderfully seedy bar have afforded one.
During all this time, Wes is the focus of attention of two other regulars – one that stirs his own interest and one that he outright rejects – but both who have a known history of being on the make for bucks received for sexual favors. Handsome Patrick in his red bells and ‘70s-perfect, satin-collared polo introduces himself with a fantasy line-up of a day he did not really have (“What I Did Today”), with Coleton Schmitto’s clear, confident voice becoming the evening’s winner in terms of its dexterity of feeling, mood, and mode. A hustler who now wants to have a real boyfriend after he meets Wes, Patrick has a life history that is revealed later in the evening’s most moving number – one where his soft, sad falsetto sings of a past life where “There’s no more stars in the sky, just endless night.” But on this night, something begins to happen between him and Wes that will leave the latter a different person, discovering love in a dream that cannot possibly be true.
Dale also quickly has his eyes on Wes, but his aims are for a bathroom quickie to earn a fiver. Chris Morrell plays young, sullen, homeless Dale who mostly lingers in the bar’s shadows, emerging from time to time trying to be a part of the community but usually being quickly rebuffed or worse, just ignored. In his “Better than Silence,” a voice of desperate loneliness cracks in pain as he sings, “It’s no fun being invisible” (during which one more example of the entire evening’s magical lighting design by Mike Post turns the scene into a foreboding olive green). Dale’s eventual ejection by the exasperated Henri – as well as the historical ejection of Dale’s predecessor that occurred on June 24, 1973 in the real Upstairs Lounge – proves to be a last straw with horrific, fiery consequences in both cases.
While this cast under the historically honoring, ‘gay-sumptuous’ direction of Ed Decker brings Max Vernon’s script and score to an engaging, entertaining level much enjoyed overall, the one misfire of the evening is too often in the performance of the modern-day Wes himself. Where there is sometimes too much overplay in Nick Rodrigues’ display of Wes’ flamboyant views of his own wonderment, his Wes often does have just the right mix of outward, cocky superiority and the inner but emerging insecurity that is clearly at his core. However, in the several solos that are intricately linked to the development of his character, this Wes time and again cannot handle the sequences of flowing notes that the composer has bestowed upon him, going painfully flat just enough to cause (at least for me) a grimace here, a cringe there. Once or twice and maybe these misses could have been chalked up to opening night jitters; but for me, these delivery issues were frequent enough to come close to ruining the evening.
Having said that, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; and my day’s-after reflection is much more positive about the overall power of the total, NCTC production. The View Upstairs for some may appear as ancient history of a time so different from today; but for most of us, it is a history we still see too often reflected in the present. We must stand on the shoulders of the Herni’s, Willie’s, Buddy’s, and Patrick’s as we continue to strive creating a world where neither a New Orleans Upstairs Lounge or an Orlando Pulse can ever again occur.
Rating: 3.5 E
The View Upstairs continues through June 9, 2019 on the Decker Stage of the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
Photos by Lois Tema
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