Theater Review: THE VIEW UPSTAIRS (Circle Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 28, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Now a nearly forgotten but seminal gay tragedy, it happened after Stonewall but before AIDS and Orlando’s Pulse terrorist attack – a 1973 arson atrocity in The Big Easy. Powerfully premiered by Circle Theatre at the Pride Arts Center, The View UpStairs is Max Vernon’s 2013 musical, nominated for three 2017 Drama Desk Awards.

While this 100-minute celebration of life remembers with a vengeance that terrible night, it mercifully rejoices lost love rather than explains, let alone excuses, an unsolved tragedy. Best of all, it sings for the silenced. And it doesn’t pretend that any welcome healing has inevitably occurred, just a slow recovery of two steps forward for every step backwards.

The occasion for this hate crime was a meeting of members of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church. The location was the UpStairs Lounge, a lavender watering hole in the French Quarter on the second floor at 141 Charles Street, New Orleans. Sometime before 8pm, it was set on fire from the street up, ignited by lighter fluid doused on the stairs. (The suspected culprit, who rang the doorbell that answered the flames, was a homeless gay man named Roger Nunez who killed himself the next year.)

32 mortals, aged 20 to 59, mostly closeted, died during or shortly after the 16 minutes of this “undetermined” arson. (Almost 50 survived.) Some escaped across an adjoining roof; others could not break through the barred windows of the second floor. Like Chicago’s 1906 Iroquois Theatre fire, several perished, slumped across the exits. Three could not be identified. Until 2016’s Orlando nightclub shooting, it was the deadliest attack on a gay night club. Pride Month was briefly shame time. An ugly joke at the time: “Where will they bury the queers? In fruit jars.”

Regrettably, it has been almost forgotten, perhaps because it was never fully explained. Wisely, Mr. Vernon doesn’t try to: It’s enough to put it in perspective by introducing, somewhat clumsily and unconvincingly, a contemporary character who “travels back” to discover 14 of the partiers before they became victims — plus two very different cops from 1973 and the present.

Time-traveling Wes (dynamic Kevin Webb), a cocaine-snorting twenty-something wanna-be fashion designer, is the new and insecure owner of the former site. Through him we encounter the unsought martyrs of June 24th, most receiving a serviceably suitable solo or chorus. Living ghosts who haunt Wes’s present (and Pride Month itself), on stage they’re alive and happy to be at home where they feel at heart. In Derek Van Barham’s warmly wrought Chicago premiere, they come across as sturdy souls more memorable than their songs.

The musical delivers a rich range depicting “Some Kind of Paradise,” a post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS haven of lost and found dreamers. There’s hustler Patrick (Averis I. Anderson), who falls for Wes, teaches him toughness, and sings “Waltz (Endless Night).” Presided over, and protected by, tough-loving bartender Henri (Caitlin Jackson), a mother hen with a short fuse, other barflies include Willy (Frederick Harris) — who likes to play Cupid — and closeted and middle-aged piano player Buddy (Jeff Bouthiette), both courting and rejecting attention.

We also meet cute Freddy (Rubén Meléndez Ortiz), who leads a double life as construction worker by day and sassy drag queen “Aurora Whorealis” at night; Inez (Selene Perez), Freddy’s protective and supportive single mom (and mother figure to the denizens); and pastor Richard (Robert Quintanilla, based on Rev. Bill Larson), a good shepherd to a very colorful flock (“Are You Listening, God?”). Finally, there’s Dale (Eric Lindahl), the disgruntled and displaced odd man out fated to become an instant nemesis.

They’re all caught in the act of being actual and refusing to be invisible (“Better Than Silence”). Whether we believe Wes when he sardonically sings “The Future Is Great!!!,” we know that this 1973 is real and precious, as, too sadly, they could hardly have known. You won’t leave humming them but Vernon’s love songs are suitable salutes to brothers and sisters lost almost half a century ago. (Regrettably, some fuzzy miking makes the lyrics hard to fathom.)

A parable and a promissory note, The View UpStairs reminds us just how conditional love is (“Lost or Found?”). A non-negotiable gift, it dies on the spot when it’s taken for granted. Perversely, this hate crime required a lot of love to happen. That becomes the final view from upstairs.

photos by Cody Jolly Photography

The View UpStairs
Circle Theatre
The Broadway at the Pride Arts Center
4139 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat & Mon at 8: Sat and Sun at 2:30
ends on July 22, 2018
for tickets, visit Circle Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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