Playing during Mardi Gras and within walking distance of the Museum of Love and Protest, THE VIEW UpSTAIRS (Book, Music and Lyrics by Max Vernon) is set in a skilfully created seedy New Orleans drag bar of the 1970’s. Here the characters lead lives in fear of a persecution which new- to- the- 70’s Wes initially finds impossible to understand. But his awakening to the struggles past will waken in him resolutions toward the struggle both now and still to come.
When we first meet Wes he is a millennial of the sort we may recognize. A nascent designer and a wanna be … famous, rich, social media adored. Having been out all his life, Wes’ insular urban soul has no interest in the politics of gayness. He’s in therapy, of course, but nothing to do with being gay. His therapist must be a Jungian because Wes is about to get a lesson in collective memory and responsibility when he is transported back to the 1970s to spend time with imaginary characters based on real people.
We, the audience, have already been there waiting for him by virtue of some clever improv and staging before the show. It pulls us into the world and makes us the silent observer in the corner with a metaphorical beer. The UpStairs Bar is rarified above the din of the straight life and the bad juju below and Wes is wide eyed and unseeing at first transport.
Henry Brett does such a good job as Wes as he fully expresses the arc of the character who will grow into awareness and love. His first solo ‘#householdname’ and the solo at the end of the show ‘Some Kind of Paradise Reprise’ are bookends which put his character work on display. And his lovely voice.
The songs have an emotional purpose rather than a narrative one but the chance to enjoy some great singing is delicious, though I wish I had a real beer. All the cast are musically excellent and the orchestration allows us to really immerse in the music under the hand of Conductor Nicholas Griffin. I especially appreciated the bongos in ‘What I Did Today’ to bring the Voodoo alive and the wail of steel strings which often echo after a song.
That particular solo is from Stephen Madsen as Patrick who gives such a rich and in-depth performance and with lower notes to die for. Plus, he rocks a variegated salmon body shirt with ‘flare’. The costuming (Anita Yavich who also costume designed the original production) is thoroughly enjoyable and my father would have thrown any of those men out of the house as he did with my tight-panted first boyfriend.
Vocally, one of the most enjoyable sequences for me was the ‘descant off’ between Henri (Markesha McCoy) and Willie (Madison McKoy) during a perfectly ordinary hymn. What voices! And terrific acting from these pair too. McCoy brings sass and vinegar to her role as the bar owner, she’s a dyke with duct tape and not afraid to use it, and McKoy’s overdone flamboyance and hand flappy gaiety is how a flame might have portrayed himself to the world those days.
In contrast is Thomas Campbell’s Richard. The bar also served as an outreach of the fledgling Metropolitan Community Church of which Richard is the Pastor. Campbell plays such a great role here, understated and yet involved, he is so much the man of peace, compassion and big picture thinking, who is both bemused and proactive. And his skills are called upon when conflict breaks out between Buddy (Anthony Harkin) and Dale (David Hooley).
Stellar work by Hooley in this pivotal role. By design, he is seldom front and centre in the mix of personalities, yet the pathos of his hanger-on status is evident every time he engages with the group. A found family who espouse inclusion and solidarity. Least capable of honesty in that bond is piano-player Buddy, troubled and conflicted work by Harkin who avoids any straight-acting clichés. Instead he cuts through the crust of our judgement to bring a poignant reflection of the times.
There are so many aspects of Shaun Rennie’s direction that I loved but it’s the choices like that which really give his production depth. And the way in which the whole work is so enriched by the characterisation of the irrepressible drag artiste Freddy. Played by Ryan Gonzalez, Freddy is superbly placed between macho Latin construction worker and diva. Never campy, two on stage would have been waaay too many, yet always excitable Gonzalez brings such truth to his creation. And he is costumed perfectly to show the before and after that only drag can truly attain.
His mum (Martelle Hammer) is steady, strong and value adds in providing the support and acceptance of the straight community and real-life family. Just part of the political undertow of a show which is peopled by the persecuted. Some with hope, some with the inertia of oppression and some at a full pelt run away from the past but all in constant movement.
The choreo (Cameron Mitchell) and the movement around the stage is smooth and apart from one solo squeezed into a corner, doesn’t attract the eye or look forced. There’s enough glam razzle dazzle to satisfy and enough still moments to give the show variety. It’s a tiny stage too, especially with punters at tables on the floor and a whacking grand piano plus a bar. The decor is “shitty stuff tacked up” in a fantastically detailed scenic design by Isabel Hudson which reminded me so much of the Taxi Club in its heyday. Clientele and narrow wooden stairs included. Ah memories.
Read the program before you see the show, I knew the story as a friend runs a LGBTQ+ tour of the French Quarter that I have done many times and the veracity adds to the experience. The work is based on the lives and circumstances of real people and a real event. The sadness undeniable and the echoes unstoppable.
That’s the thing about THE VIEW UPSTAIRS: It’s not a just a thoroughly entertaining musical set in an almost forgotten past… just a funny and moving history story. Invisible Wall Productions (the original producers) and Sugary Rum Productions have taken an Off Broadway hit and given it a polished and well executed tackiness melded with a musical pizazz that audiences obviously adore, the season has been extended. A chance perhaps, in the here and now, a now where PrEP and apps distract young men like Wes from community action, here at the Hayes at this time of year, a chance for others to hear a klaxon call to the politics of personal responsibility in that black box which is spitting distance from the arrests of the 78ers.