Dallas — Forty-six years ago this month, an arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, resulted in 23 deaths. Anyone who was alive and gay in 1973 will not be surprised to know that the response at the time, in a city in the American South, was deafening silence from the judicial system, law enforcement, and the public in general.
Friday night, in a beautifully conceived and acted production by Uptown Players at Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas audiences got their first opportunity to experience The View Upstairs, playwright-composer-lyricist Max Vernon’s moving and unfailingly engaging one-act musical based on that event. The View Upstairs premiered successfully Off-Broadway in 2017, and has since been produced in San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Sydney and other cities; it will be produced in London later this summer.
Vernon has constructed The View Upstairs as an extended dream sequence (the best-known example of which is the movie version of The Wizard of Oz). The central character Wes (Blake McIver), an over-extended, over-stimulated, cool but not-at-all collected fashion designer from New York, returns to his hometown of New Orleans to buy a burned out, neglected property in the French Quarter; after snorting a line of coke while depressedly surveying the decaying interior he has just bought, he falls through a time-warp—or maybe hallucinates—the action in the UpStairs Lounge early in the summer of 1973, just before the fire. There, he encounters a world of bell-bottom jeans, over-the-collar hair, sideburns, and pin-up posters of coyly naked Burt Reynolds. Cellphones, Google, and the internet are unheard of, and any disease one might acquire via erotic adventure can be cured by penicillin. “Queer” is an obscene pejorative, and police are always hostile.
Every bar in the world, gay or otherwise, has its regulars, and Wes encounters, in his dream of the UpStairs Lounge, a cast of believable, sympathetic, and—to anyone who has observed the gay scene over the decades—recognizable characters. Crystal Williams as Henri/Henrietta, the butch lesbian owner-manager of Upstairs, keeps the drama-prone clientele under control. Will Carleton plays Patrick, a small-town boy turned hustler (and Wes’s slowly emerging love interest), with convincing innocence and guile. Jordi Visconti as Freddy, a tall and twinkish Puerto Rican drag queen (and daytime construction worker), can’t keep his drag personality under wraps, even in front of police. Gigi Cervantes plays his mother, an immigrant from the island for whom the American Dream was an empty promise but who finds fulfillment in dressing Freddy for his act. Cervantes doubles (and takes on a delightfully over-the-top drawl) as the shady present-day realtor who sells the property to Wes in the prologue.
Peter DiCesare impressively navigates the most complex secondary role of the work as the bar’s resident pianist, torn between his infatuation for Patrick and his desperation to preserve his reputation as a straight married man outside of the bar. Steven Pounders plays Richard, an idealistic minister with a turn-the-other-cheek attitude, with willful meekness. (The historical record shows that two members of the clergy of the Metropolitan Community Church died in the fire). Jericho Thomas likewise takes on the dramatically intriguing double role of an abusive, corrupt cop in 1973 and a sympathetic cop in the present day.
As Wes, McIver conveys a textured mixture of savvy, confusion, and charisma: he’s a guy who dreams of fame but who understands happiness isn’t measured in the number of online followers.
Walter Lee, meanwhile, grabs the role of the wizened, gender-ambiguous barfly Willie (“the biggest diva to come out of the South since Leontyne Price”) to create a scene-stealing, virtuoso character performance. Gorgeously tall Lee, the sort of performer who makes gender an irrelevant concept, once again proves to be a treasure on the local theatrical scene.
The other most intriguing character to come to life is contained in the role of Dale, here performed by Taylor Wright. (The character is based on the historical figure Roger Dale Nunez, a hustler thrown out of the UpStairs Lounge on the day of the fire and the principal but never-charged suspect in the arson case; Nunez committed suicide in 1974). Wright plays Dale as a handsome but seething, set-to-explode time bomb, ostracized even within this community of the ostracized; he delivers of his solo lament song, “Better Than Silence,” with haunting presence and insight.
While Vernon’s score doesn’t break any new ground stylistically, it’s solid, rock-influenced and always delivers generous energy and emotion. “Crazy Notion” presents a grandly romantic, old-fashioned duet (albeit sung by two men) of the sort that used to make the Top 40 and Motown charts, and “World Outside These Walls” provides a neatly showy ensemble number—and thorough explanation of the gay world as it existed in 1973. Williams and Lee break into a quick, vocally rich gospel riff during the church service scene; the level of singing throughout is far above the average for regional productions—all of these actors could actually sing.
Suzi Cranford and Jessie Chavez’s costumes capture the ambience of the era, right down to the ass-tight, flare-legged jeans, open collars, and cheap chains. While Wes’ attire glares and distracts at times, it definitely sets him apart on the scene as a man from another century. Dennis Canright and Kevin Brown’s sets bring a pang of nostalgia to this gay Baby Boomer heart when I walked into the theater and saw, as part of the backdrop, one of Bette Midler’s first album covers on the wall along with a poster of Burt’s inviting leer. Trevor Wright’s simple, effective choreography enhances director Cheryl Denson’s winningly realistic interaction for the complex, sometimes funny, ultimately doomed characters.
The offstage, invisible orchestra under conductor and keyboardist Kevin Gunter, is perfectly in sync and balanced with the singing actors onstage Friday night. Gunter and the cast create a fine musical impetus—at times more convincing than in the cast recording album. Virgil Justice’s sound design is admirable: all the words are easily understood, which is something that doesn’t happen as often as it should in area musical theater.
The only flaw in The View Upstairs lies in its brief but preachy epilogue. Audience members can pretty well get the themes at play here without being hit in the face, and a quieter, more subtle denouement by Vernon would make a more striking and memorable effect.
Other than that one slip-up in the script, The View Upstairs provides a profound exploration of the emerging, pre-AIDS, pre-liberated gay world of the 1970s, as well as a reminder of its significance to our own time. Stonewall had already happened before the fire at the UpStairs Lounge, and echoes were reverberating even down South by 1973; but day-to-day life for gay people in most of America—take it from someone who was there—continued to involve the maneuvering, risk-taking, despair, and outright dangers depicted in The View Upstairs.
Billboards on the freeway, for major corporations, openly celebrate Pride Month, but even in Dallas in 2019, there are places where you don’t talk about it too loudly. The View Upstairs is not just about 1973; it’s about today as well.