GLITTER AND BE GAY IN 1973
REVIEW: THE VIEW UPSTAIRS
BY RYAN M. LUÉVANO
Earlier this month I interviewed Max Vernon, the creator of the new musical The View Upstairs, that’s currently having its West Coast premiere at Celebration Theatre. About his show, Vernon said, “The musical [. . .] contrasts two different eras of gay life, and questions if we’re better or worse off today than we were 40 years ago.” Upon watching his musical, both as consequence of Vernon’s writing, and Michael Shepperd’s meticulous direction that instills contemporary savoir-faire, there is no doubt that Vernon’s query soundly resonates with audiences.
The conceit for Vernon’s musical is a coke induced fantasy-throwback to 1973 by the main character, Wes, when he purchases the now abandoned UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans (present-day). With a blink of an eye, Shepperd conjures up theatre magic—audiences are transported to the glitzy and raw world of 1970’s in this gay watering hole. The characters appear like ghosts then come fully to life in the opening number “Some Kind of Paradise”. From that moment on, audiences are immersed as patrons of the UpStairs Lounge complete with fruity shots (containing real alcohol) distributed throughout the crowd.
Time and time again, Celebration Theatre proves to be the master of intimate theatre and The View Upstairs upholds that legacy. The black box theatre is beautifully transformed into a bar, by scenic designer Alex Calle, complete with a bar, walls covered in gay man’s kitsch, Christmas lights and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The ingenious lighting design by Martha Cater makes shifts from past and present clear, intimate moments honest, and exultant moments a wild party. Following suit are the snappy period costumes by Michael Mullen—every actor’s outfit fits them perfectly (body and personality). Add to this the groovy choreography by Cate Caplin, which employs simple yet exciting movement, and the 70’s are back at Celebration Theatre.
Leading the show is Matthew Hancock as Wes, whose youthful energy and naiveté in the role makes for the quintessential observer—just like the him, the audience follows the story on the outside also finding inspiration in the end. Hancock’s duet “Crazy Notion” with Darren Bluestone is one of most tender moments in the show; these two men pour their hearts out with their mighty voices. Pip Lilly (Willie) is sass to the nth degree, an audience favorite with his quips and stylized movements. Lilly’s monologue at the midpoint shows his aptitude for depth as well. Rehyan Rivera (Freddy) is our fabulous drag queen who knows how to put on a show—he rides the line between internal brazen joy and painful shame from the outside world.
WHAT ABOUT THE MUSIC DIRECTOR?
Music director Jake Anthony not only music directs the show but also participates as one of the principal characters in The View Upstairs. The voices and band are superb. Anthony’s performance as Buddy the bitter resident piano player (a closeted homosexual with a wife) is dynamic and potent.
As a new musical, The View Upstairs is an interesting hybrid of memory-play and musical. For, as a musical alone, it falls short: the stakes are not high enough, and it’s missing that sense of urgency to propel the drama forward. Instead we float through this piece like a smoke in the air—perhaps that’s the intention. Nevertheless, this production of Vernon’s piece is given a glorious presentation at Celebration Theatre, honoring everything that the piece calls forth: a sincere recollection of gay history to build a better tomorrow for all—a message that is ever more vital today.
OPENS FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 22
THROUGH SUNDAY, OCTOBER 29
Regular performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm;
Sundays at 2pm
6760 Lexington Ave.
Los Angeles, CA, 90038
General Performance Ticket Prices $25; $35 Reserved; $45 House Seats