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THEATER REVIEW The View UpStairs
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-07-04

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Playwright: Max Vernon ( book, music & lyrics )

At: Circle Theatre at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: CircleTheatreChicago.org; $30. Runs through: July 22

The smart, dense lyrics are this show's best element. They convey much more information about the characters and tell more of the story than most show lyrics. You'll be rewarded if you pay attention to them.

The music isn't compelling, but it's pleasant pop/rock that gets the job done with several solid ballads, an anthem and numbers that knowingly channel early-1970s disco classics per the 1973 New Orleans setting.

The weakest element is the book, which is too generic. We are in the Upstairs Lounge, a French Quarter gay bar torched in 1973 with a loss of 32 lives ( some never identified ). But this musical isn't about the fire or its aftermath; it's about the regulars in the bar that night.

What you get is akin to a World War II movie platoon: one of everything. There's a leatherman, a hippie twink, a Puerto Rican drag artist and his mother, a hustler, a loner, a married piano player on the DL, a Lesbian bar owner, etc. Some tell their stories ( mostly in song ), others do not, and most bemoan the still-benighted early 1970s when being identified as gay could cost you career, friends, marriage and maybe your life. The cops were hostile, yet also "on the take."

The problem is none of this is unique to New Orleans. These characters and the social context easily could be Chicago ( even though Illinois decriminalized homosexuality in 1962 ) or any American city of that era. Author Max Vernon doesn't make The View Upstairs and its characters specific to New Orleans or the colorful French Quarter with its long, storied history as a gay mecca.

Vernon wisely engineers a love story between a fashionista from today who time travels back to that fatal night at the Upstairs, and a handsome hustler. Improbable as it is, the relationship between Wes ( Kevin Webb ) and Patrick ( Averis L. Anderson ) provides focus and an emotional hook for the audience. Coming from 2018, Wes also assures us that "It Gets Better."

Book, music and lyrics aside, this production sparkles with energy and high-caliber talent. Webb's powerful high baritone and Anderson's sweet tenor lead a fine ensemble under director Derek Van Barham and music director Jeff Bouthiette ( who also acts/sings as piano player Buddy ). Jon Martinez provides strong choreography, working around an on-stage piano nearly dead-center ( not the best design idea ) and providing wonderful, small moves for many of the songs. The fine six-piece band is conducted by Justin Harner, and never overpowers in the intimate theater.

The Upstairs Lounge fire was a horrific LGBTQ event in which New Orleans' first responders and political and religious leadership totally failed their citizenry, perhaps from bigotry ... but that's not this show's story.


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