In ‘The View UpStairs,’ a prelude to tragedy at a ’70s gay bar
A lot of attention has been paid, justifiably, to this month’s 50th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn that launched the modern gay-rights movement.
Considerably less notice has been taken of another significant anniversary. Forty-six years ago, on June 24, 1973, a horrific arson attack killed 32 people in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. Before the 2016 shootings at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the conflagration at the UpStairs Lounge was the most lethal attack on a gay club in US history.
That tragedy has the makings of a potentially compelling theater piece, but Max Vernon’s “The View UpStairs’’ is an uneven effort that doesn’t fully give us a sense of who, and what, was lost in the UpStairs fire.
It doesn’t help matters that the caliber of the cast’s vocal skills varies so markedly in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Vernon’s musical, which is helmed by Paul Daigneault. Perhaps because SpeakEasy is presenting “The View UpStairs’’ in the smaller confines of the Plaza Theatre rather than the company’s customary space at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Daigneault’s direction lacks his usual elan.
When a young, on-the-rise fashion designer named Wes (J’Royce Jata) is inexplicably thrust from the present day back to the club in 1973, in the hours just before the blaze, he encounters the UpStairs regulars (a number of whom will soon perish).
They include Willie (Davron S. Monroe), the free-spirited and garrulous voice of experience; Buddy (Will McGarrahan), a married pianist; Richard (Russell Garrett), an earnest priest; Dale (Jared Troilo), a needy, homeless hustler; Patrick (Eddie Shields), a runaway who is also a hustler, though considerably younger than Dale, and who soon emerges as a rival for Wes’s attention; Freddy (Shawn Verrier), a drag queen; Inez (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), Freddy’s supportive mother; and Henri, the bartender (Yewande Odetoyinbo).
With its red walls, chandeliers, and a cardboard cutout of a nude Burt Reynolds above the bar (Abby Shenker did the scenic design), the club is a refuge, a community, even a kind of home for patrons who face scorn and violence in the outside world. And sometimes in the club, too, as the brutal treatment of one patron by a police officer (Michael Levesque) illustrates.
But Vernon’s script is hobbled by quips that don’t quite land and further limited by its one-note characterizations. His score is not distinctive enough to tap very deeply into the talents of performers like Odetoyinbo (whose wrenching portrayal of the title character in Moonbox Productions’ “Caroline, or Change’’ was one of the most powerful performances of the year so far) or Monroe (who won an Elliot Norton Award last month from the Boston Theater Critics Association for his performance in the Lyric Stage Company/Front Porch Arts Collective production of “Breath & Imagination’’). Jata’s Wes does not compellingly occupy the center of the story Vernon is trying to tell.
Still, “The View UpStairs’’ does have its moments. When they first see Wes’s smartphone, the astonishment of the bar’s regulars is quite funny. As denizens of 1973 they are consistently baffled by Wes’s references to the Huffington Post, “Project Runway,’’ and hashtags. Though the musical never quite finds a persuasive balance between its lightness and its darkness, there is something undeniably moving about its portrait of gay solidarity in the face of unremitting discrimination — and in the insistence by its characters on their simple right to joy.
THE VIEW UPSTAIRS
By Max Vernon. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through June 22. Tickets start at $25, 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com