Review: The Moving Regional Premiere of The View UpStairs
In June 1973, an arsonist torched New Orleans’ second-story UpStairs Lounge, locking the outer door and causing 32 deaths; a horrific total that wouldn’t be exceeded until 2016’s shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. The mass murder was barely investigated; the government made no public notice of mourning.
Max Vernon’s acclaimed Off-Broadway piece, The View UpStairs, in an excellent production directed by Beth Kattelman, restores the life and joy of the club and its habitues with the fabulism built for musicals. Modern-day fashion designer Wes (Jonathan Collura, also musical director), licking his New York-born wounds and seeking solace in New Orleans as so many have before him, puts a deposit down on the burned-out husk of the building and finds himself transported back in time to the night of the “beer bust” and church service before tragedy struck.
Vernon sidesteps the trap of being too beholden to facts by creating new characters who only tangentially map to the real counterparts we know from historical reporting. He uses this freedom to build a three-dimensional world out of these characters and their complex, shifting relationships. Kattelman and her cast breathe playful, painful life into that world.
At its core, The View UpStairs celebrates life in all its messiness; it valorizes and validates the act of remembering that life. Each character gets a feature song, witty pastiches of the era that — at their best — work on multiple levels. Standouts include: Ross Shirley’s double-life lounge singer, Buddy, with his anthemic de facto theme song for the bar “Some Kind of Paradise;” bartender/peacemaker/enforcer Henri (Tirzah Hawley) who tears into the slow-burn blistering of “World Outside These Walls”; and Michael Gault’s golden-voiced hustler, Patrick, who Wes falls for, brings a soaring AOR sweetness to “What I Did Today.”
The mother-and-son pairing of Inez (Carolyn Demanelis) and Freddy (Benjamin Hartwig) balance warm humanity with a clear-eyed sharpness about the rough road they took to find that sliver of peace. Hartwig’s aw-shucks demeanor cracking open into Freddy’s delight at the dress Wes makes for him doesn’t shrug off what he suffered in the scene before but acknowledges finding that joy keeps the bastards from winning.
Collura paints Wes with specificity and antic energy that raises his character above just a point of view hand-hold for the audience. His irony-drenched “The Future is Really Great!!!” is a standout in a show full of earworms. Christopher Storer’s troubled, desperate Dale grips the audience by the collar and shakes. He wrings every drop of pain and terror from the heart of the dark glam-rock stomp “Better Than Silence,” matching and vaulting off its insidious guitar riffs (by David Detwiler and J. Damon Barnett, Jr).
In a tight 90 minutes, Kattelman’s production leaves the audience feeling we know these people and makes the pain of the tragedy whose shadows creep across the stage from the first moments, technicolor-specific. The razor-sharp five-piece band cover ground from disco-stomps to soaring, jazz-inflected ballads, with a sense of lightness and fire that fuels The View UpStairs.
The final moments, telling instead of showing and using real names, feel rushed and on-the-nose in a way the rest of the piece avoids. But that bucket of cold water fits into the steadfast belief that the greatest gift in the world is memory. While leaving songs stuck in my head the next day.
The View UpStairs runs through July 27 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 21. For tickets and more info, visit www.evolutiontheatre.org.