THE VIEW UPSTAIRS
May 20, 2017
Lights splinter off the dusty disco ball in a bar of the not so distant past, unless you’re counting in social media time. Burned out from the NYC consumerism treadmill, Wes (Jeremy Pope), an aspiring fashion designer buys a dilapidated saloon in New Orleans. After realizing the property is falling apart he takes some mind-expanding snort that lands him back in 1974. That’s the start of Max Vernon’s warm-hearted musical “The View UpStairs” tenderly directed by Scott Ebersold at the intimate Culture Project.
New Orleans in the 70’s is a time when community means a handful of caring, real people are your friends, and not millions of “followers” showing their love by “liking” your photos. Spirits emerge and take on flesh. Dazzling drag queens materialize along with, lesbian and gay outcasts who found acceptance and love in specialized bars and clubs--havens for the fabulous and lonely.
Behind the bar is the owner and no-nonsense Henrietta (Frenchie Davis) whose voice can wield as much power as the bat behind her. Doubling as a house of worship, they raise funds for a local New Orleans charity in order to build bridges between their community and the status quo.
It’s a motley group—there’s the past middle-aged Caucasian piano player Buddy (Randy Redd), who’s married with kids and deeply inside the closet. Besides Henrietta, there’s Inez (Nancy Ticotin) the Puerto Rican mother whose marriage fell apart after her husband realized their son Freddy (Michael Longoria) was happier in make-up and spiked heels.
Organically feeding through the dense space designed by Jason Sherwood, performers sit on audience’s laps and dance and sing within inches of amused faces. Each cast member gets an opportunity to shine, but Wes belts out the most songs. Intense, agile and full of unrealized emotion, he commands his role. Wes’ love interest, the baby faced southern hustler Patrick (Taylor Frey), abandoned as a youth, has a quiet way of mocking Wes, and singing from the heart, which makes him an equal winner.
But someone with an exploding personality, Willie (Nathan Lee Graham) outrageously channels all the R&B divas, from Diana Ross to James Brown. In his piece de resistance, Willie breaks into a wild Ms. Ross-styled song and dance that hurls him around the space flinging his bell bottomed leg like a chorine onto the baby grand -- not once but three times. To the merriment of all, Willie’s elastic face transforms into Ms. Ross, Michael Jackson, and James Brown expressions and gestures that snake through his body like a slinky with a fro. And yes, he steals the show.
While hearing about people’s behavior four decades ago, Wes tries to warn Patrick about the vagaries of AIDS amid newfound liberties. Sadly, this story references the arson tragedy that pulverized a gay bar killing 32 people in 1973. But in the end, it’s always the connections between people that make a lifelong difference.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis