The View Upstairs – A New Musical ★★★☆☆

Jeremy Pope, Taylor Frey & Nathan Lee Graham in “The View Upstairs” (photo: Kurt Sneddon)

Lynne Redgrave Theater at Culture Project
February 15, 2017 thru May 21, 2017
Opened February 28, 2017

Book, Music & Lyrics by Max Vernon
Directed by Scott Ebersold
Choreographed by Al Blackstone

The View Upstairs, a new off-Broadway musical about the catastrophic fire on June 24, 1973, that claimed 32 lives at the Upstairs Lounge, a gay nightclub in New Orleans’ French Quarter that also doubled as a home for the Metropolitan Community Church, is a welcome addition to a theatre season stuffed with new musicals.  Despite some book problems, The View Upstairs possesses an impressive score and enough sparkling performances to make even the most tired, jaded drag queen stand up and say “Amen!”

Written solely by Max Vernon, a 28-year old upstart who attended NYU and has made a name for himself on the internet, the score for The View Upstairs is steeped in catchy melodies and, for the most part, smart lyrics that propel the plot and help define character.  Vernon is fortunate to have a top-drawer line-up of performers portraying the denizens of the Upstairs Lounge and singing his songs, particularly the sinfully handsome Taylor Frey as Patrick (“What I Did Today”), a fierce Michael Longoria as the budding drag queen Freddy (“Sex on Legs”), luscious Frenchie Davis as Henri (“The World Outside These Walls”) and the righteous diva herself, Nathan Lee Graham as Willie (“Theme Song”).  Into their 1973 world steps Wes from 2017, portrayed by Jeremy Pope who starred in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy to great critical acclaim.  Wes is a budding fashion designer who can’t afford Brooklyn anymore so he’s moved back to New Orleans where he plans to purchase the fire and water-damaged second floor of a three-story building to open up his new studio.  As he walks around the space the ghosts from the past come to life and give Wes an old-school education in gay history and gay culture.

It’s too bad Vernon didn’t engage a collaborator to help him with the book as this kind of time-traveling with ghosts materializing from the past is trickier to pull off than it sounds.  (Just ask James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim.  Follies, anyone?)  Additionally, a lot of the dialogue and banter between Wes and the patrons of the Upstairs Lounge provokes eye-rolling and needs to be improved.  But then the cast starts to sing and almost all is forgiven.  Jason Sherwood has magically turned the theatre space into a deliciously tacky gay bar, complete with every conceivable kind of trapping, poster and decoration you can imagine.  It’s an impressive achievement and is complimented by the terrific costumes by Anita Yavich, the wigs courtesy of Jason Hayes, the lighting by Brian Tovar and the sound by Justin Stasiw.  The musical direction and orchestrations are by James Dobinson who leads an expert 7-piece, off-stage band with sass and panache.

It’s worth noting that, until the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub which killed 49 people in 2016, the arson in 1973 at the Upstairs Lounge was the deadliest know attack known on a gay club.  When we don’t remember our history we’re doomed to repeat it.  Vernon deserves credit for bringing the Upstairs Lounge’s story – and it’s victims stories – back into the public’s contemporary consciousness.  With a little more tweaking, The View Upstairs could become a musical theatre staple across the country and around the world.