Prior to the horrific events at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, America’s deadliest attack on an LGBTQ+ space occurred at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. One night in the summer of 1973, 32 people died as the result of an arson attack on the bar. The View UpStairs gives an account of the events of that evening, viewed through a contemporary lens, with original music, lyrics and book by Max Vernon.
The show’s concept demands a significant amount of suspending disbelief from its audience. The opening scene is set in the present day, which sees millennial influencer Wes – the ever-brilliant Tyrone Huntley, who illuminates the stage for the entire production – in the process of buying a property. Unbeknown to him, Wes is purchasing the fire-damaged remains of the bar; once he’s signed the lease he indulges in a celebratory drugs binge, and while tripping he is transported to the venue in July 1973 to spend the rest of the show with the patrons on that fateful night.
The conceit is a bit of a stretch, but it didn’t phase us too much. We were a bit bothered by just how unsubtle some of the writing was, however. This is an important story that should really be better known than it is, but at times it comes across as an LGBTQ+ history lesson. Some exchanges felt akin to a lecture when a bit of sensitive handling could have been more effective. A few of Wes’ realisations about the privilege he now enjoys would have benefited from a little more nuance in the text, too.
Thankfully, it’s a show full of tremendous performances. Tyrone really wowed us earlier this year in Leave to Remain and he’s just as impressive to watch here; Wes is at times a painfully stereotypical character, but Tyrone adds some real warmth, subtlety and humour to the role. Garry Lee thoroughly entertained as fierce Puerto Rican drag queen Freddy, whose song Sex on Legs was a highlight of the show; Andy Mientus as doe-eyed love interest Patrick was charming; while Declan Bennett coped admirably with the tricky role of troubled loner Dale.
Less consistently strong are the songs. We’re not saying they’re bad – far from it, there were several entertaining and enjoyable numbers – but rather too many were a bit predictable or just not very memorable. We always expect a musical to start with a bang, but show opener Some Kind of Paradise was a bit of a damp squib. Things do improve, but the quality is patchy.
Is it a bit clunky and heavy handed in places? Yes. Are all of the songs great? No. But The View UpStairs tells an important story and offers a really tangible and compelling contrast between what it meant to be gay in the early days of the battle for equal rights against today’s situation – which is of course far from perfect, but it does a superb job of illustrating just how far we’ve come. It’s also a hugely enjoyable show, with some great performances and a handful of stellar songs – well worth checking out.
GAY TIMES gives The View UpStairs – ★★★★☆