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The View UpStairs

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 28, 2017

Jeremy Pope and Taylor Frey
Photo by Kurt Sneddon

You've undoubtedly heard that those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. In his new musical The View UpStairs, now playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, Max Vernon twists that up a bit by introducing us to someone who learns from the past because he's condemned to repeat it. Why? Uh, well, because if he didn't, there wouldn't be much of a show. No, it's not a particularly good excuse, and it's not much of a foundation for a credibly dramatic musical, but that's not what Vernon is interested in anyway.

The real thrust of The View UpStairs, which has been directed to a fiery fare-thee-well by Scott Ebersold, is how history—in particular, gay history—is passed from one generation to the next. And Wes needs all the help he can get. A fashion designer who's recently transplanted himself to the Big Easy from the Big Apple ("I had to get out of New York," he says early on, "so manufactured, so five years ago"), he's bought the burned-out building in which the UpStairs Lounge gay bar thrived some four decades earlier to serve as his first flagship outlet. All he's lacking is inspiration. And he gets deposited on the road to that when, all of the sudden, he finds himself back in 1973, when the UpStairs Lounge was at the height of its dubious popularity.

That's the actual setup, folks. Most of the rest of the 100-minute evening is Wes (Jeremy Pope) finding himself as he finds annoyance from most of the bar's patrons and, especially, the potential for love with Patrick (Taylor Frey), a chiseled hustler who might just have a heart of gold. We meet the denizens, we hear their stories of how they fit in (or don't), we listen to them sing, and then we watch them pass away through the inexorable and inevitable passage of time that, going in, had no prayer of working in their favor. You can't make sense of the story, you can't root for the characters since you know their fates were sealed well before the Vietnam War ended—what does that leave? Well, caring about Wes, which isn't easy, since the question of whether he'll realize his dreams of a clothing line is not one rife with suspense.

Taylor Frey, Jeremy Pope, and cast
Photo by Kurt Sneddon

There's also the option of sitting back and enjoying the ride, which is admittedly easier. How could it not be, given Ebersold's lavish staging, which transforms the entire theater into a comfy-seedy piano lounge (the kitschy, intricately detailed set is by Jason Sherwood, and has been lighted every bit as well by Brian Tovar; the flawless period costumes are by Anita Yavich) in which you're always made to feel as though you're the most important patron? Beyond that, there's Vernon's well-greased knack with writing this sort of pastiche material from the era's musical forms. He combines club, funk, rock, spiritual and more to make the UpStairs lounge come alive time and time again with each new piano riff or guitar lick. (The rollicking five-piece band is led by James Dobinson.) Al Blackstone's spirited, strutting choreography easily completes the framework of fun.

The performing company is a trip, too, from the top on down. Pope invests Wes with a strikingly dark personality that leavens and lightens as he's exposed to more and more what he doesn't know made him who he is. Frey is enormously appealing, finding a proper balance between nice and nasty that almost revives the dangerously antiquated archetype he's tasked with playing. Frenchie Davis (of American Idol) is rock hard but soft centered as Henri, the bartender; and Michael Longoria is a flamboyant but centered joy as a boy who comes to life in drag. Perhaps best of all is Nathan Lee Graham, who's scintillating as the ancient drag queen Willie, and whose way with a tart one-liner puts a smile on your face and a laugh in your gut every single time, without fail. The other actors are scarcely less good.

It just doesn't add up to much other than a sort of vampy, revamped A Chorus Line. Once it's established that everyone is going to say (and sing) their peace in order to propel Wes forward into his best self, there's nothing to do but wait. That includes feel, sadly. For all its flash and filigree, the writing never transcends its basic subject matter to become about something bigger, such as the subtle ways in which the past influences the future, or even how gay culture has transformed over the last 44 years. There's a faint bright spot in the person of a cop (Richard E. Waits, quite strong), who appears in two significantly different guises in the two eras, and hints at a deeper relationship between what was and what is.

In the end, though, it's really all just about Wes. But because we learn so little about him (the UpStairs denizens clearly interest Vernon a lot more) he's all but irrelevant—and so, ultimately, is the show itself. You need people to care about, yes, but also reasons to care about them, and "because they're there" or "because they were there" aren't good enough to make a skeptic sympathetic. Although Vernon has obviously worked hard and is unquestionably a talent to watch, The View UpStairs would have a greater impact if he, too, were more interested in learning from history than in merely repeating it.

The View UpStairs
Through May 21
The Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: