Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of American Psycho
The View UpStairs, with book, music and lyrics by Max Vernon, is a musical set, for the most part, in 1973 in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar cum church cum community center in New Orleans that was a kind of paradise for a queer community suffering under oppression and harassment (both legal and societal) that was the unfortunate order of the day at that time. The story, however, begins in the present, as Wes (Nic Rodrigues), an up and coming fashion designer, is about to close on the purchase of a building in the French Quarter, which is to become the flagship store for his clothing line. But after the real estate agent leaves, Wes is magically transported back to 1973 and finds himself in the UpStairs Lounge, which was housed in the building Wes is buying, and where a small group is gathered for a Sunday "service."
Although part of the audience's contract with theatre is to willingly suspend disbelief, it is a tad hard to accept how easily the patrons of 1973 accept a man from the future suddenly appearing in their clubhouse, and how casually Wes accepts his being transported to the past. (Though I do love the test the patrons set for Wes to determine whether he truly belonged or was perhaps some undercover agent, "Oscar Wilde or Arthur Miller? Sonny or Cher?," and the very funny vision of the future Wes clues them in on, "Michael Jackson is going to be white, and our president is going to be orange.") But hey, it's a musical, and we can handle a little bit of magic in order to keep a story moving or establish some stakes for the characters.
The music is fun, often quite powerful, and given that there is a piano in the bar and Buddy (Cameron Weston) is a composer and pianist, the songs benefit from feeling a bit more organic than in some musicals. One of the best moments comes when Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Willie, the queen mum of the crowd, and Henri (Jessica Coker), the "bull dagger" lesbian owner of the UpStairs Lounge, engage in a thrilling gospel "battle" in which each outdoes the other with improvisational vocal runs. But in the "loved it not" category, the piano is placed at stage right, but is not actually played by Weston, who only mimes his tickling of the ivoriesyet the music we hear is coming from the trio (led by music director Kelly Crandell), who seem to be positioned backstage left, which leads to an odd aural dissonance that seems unnecessary and pulls focus from the onstage action.
Getting back to "loved it," the costume created by Wes Crain to be worn by drag queen Freddy (Jesse Cortez) is stunning: what is done with a feather boa and two plastic funnels will blow your mind.
But perhaps the biggest problem with The View UpStairs has nothing to do with this production and everything to do with the disconnect between the first 100 minutes of the show and the last five. If you don't know the history of the UpStairs Lounge, a minor spoiler is coming. Despite the array of funny and relatable characters, despite the many wonderful catty lines and the warm setting of a place where people tossed aside by the "world outside these walls" can relax and be themselves, The View UpStairs is headed for a very tragic ending, and one that feels out of balance with the rest of the piece. There is one minor bit of foreshadowing, but if you're aren't prepared for it, the final tragedy colors the whole evening. It's rather like taking what looks like a candy from a dish, only to bite into it and discover it's a decorative bar of soap. Having known what happened at the UpStairs Lounge, I was prepared for a downbeat denouement, but it still felt out of place.
Still, if you can look past the pitch problems of a few of the cast members, forgive the sometimes stilted line readings and the too-often rushed comic timing, The View UpStairs tells a moving, inspirational story that is perfect for the start of Pride season.
The View UpStairs, through June 9, 2019, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $35-$60, and can be purchased at nctcsf.org or by calling 415-861-8972.