Remember dive bars?
I don’t mean those manufactured pseudo-authentic lounges where the scene is so curated it looks more like an Instagram photo shoot rather than a place to drink.
No, I mean a dive bar a place where if you grazed your skin on the walls you were walking away with Hepatitis. A spot where the derelicts of all ages and shrink their liver in peace. A dive bar was a placed not to be seen but to hide. You went there because liquor was served in plastic cups and other oral transactions might take place in the restrooms.
Ah, the good old days. That place was and is The UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana.
It is in this dive bar that the new musical The View UpStairs takes place. The show is a reminder of what we have lost over the past few decades – regardless of what we gained. Marriage equality – yes. Extended rights – yes. Featured across media platforms – yes. But the battle is far from over and Max Vernon, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the show, knows how to remind us about the still waging war for the LGBTQ community without beating us over the head with messaging.
In fact, messaging and branding is the enemy in this show. We are introduced to Wes, played by Jeremy Pope, a fashion designer who is both the most fabulous man on earth, if you ask him, and the most insecure creature, also if you ask him. He is back in New Orleans after a failed attempted to make it big in New York. His last ditch effort is to buy an abandoned building and turn it into something great.
His need to be validated by people he doesn’t know (i.e. social media) is so powerful he has trouble coping with the real world. So it is a shock when Wes comes face to face with a mangled bunch of patrons of The UpStairs Lounge, circa 1973, and the comedy ensues from there.
The bar is filled with people we can all remember in our heads if you ever went bar hopping in the pre-internet days. The angry lesbian owner, Henri, played by Frenchie Davis. The unobtainable pretty boy Patrick, played by Taylor Frey, and Willie, the eccentric old queen with a zillion stories (most you do not believe), played by Nathan Lee Graham. They sound like stereotypes on the surface, but the writing and acting push them past the cardboard cut out and into the realm of fond family members.
Rounding out the cast are Benjamin Howes, Michael Longoria, Ben Mayne, Randy Redd, Nancy Ticotin, and Richard E. Waits.
The songs The View are fresh as well, like the opening “Some Kind of Paradise,” and “Most Important Thing” being some standouts.
Pope plays the part of uber-connected but emotionally dead social climber to the hilt. In one scene his hand dangles towards the heavens as he tries to access his emotional core. It was so funny yet strikingly sad at the same time. He and Frey have real chemistry, which resonates throughout the show. Davis and Graham add star power and vocal gravitas to the musical numbers and you just enjoy them chewing up the scenery.
The musical is directed by Scott Ebersold who realizes that dive bars are immersive experiences. So the set is intimate and constructed to feel like the audience is just sitting at one of the rickety tables waiting for a vodka tonic to land on our table.
In fact, some of the audience was hoisted to some tables right on stage and got to experience the show as if they were there.
The musical has a deeper message than “let’s all get drunk together” as the commonalities and differences between 1973 and today collide in a spectacular way at the end. You are left breathless by the climax and angry and excited and looking for guidance. The View UpStairs is a show that doesn’t allow you to just sit on the sidelines sipping your drink while history passes you by – you have to participate, both on and off the stage.
But before you go paint your picket signs, sit and have a sip with the gang at the UpStairs lounge, I guarantee it will be worth the trip.
The View UpStairs is playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theater through May 21st. To purchase tickets click here.