BY BART GREENBERG **** The View UpStairs is, unfortunately, a hazy one. There is much to enjoy in this new musical playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, but there are some serious flaws as well, mostly in the book.
The production presents a dramatic adaptation of true events that happened at a dive bar in New Orleans in 1973. Each of the habitués, some suggested by real people, some wholly invented by the author, is given a backstory and several moments in the spotlight. This would be enough for most dramatists. But Max Vernon, who provided book, music and lyrics for this entertainment, adds a second layer to the story with the leading character, a wannabe fashionista named Wes, who in 2017 wants to purchase the now deserted and semi-destroyed bar, and who — by unexplained means — travels back in time to a pivotal moment in the past.
So, we have a sleazy bar play, popular with playwrights as varied as William Saroyan (The Time of Your Life), Eugene O’Neill (The Iceman Cometh), Anita Loos (Happy Birthday) and even William Shakespeare (the Falstaff scenes in Henry IV), overlaid with a Twilight Zone-ish time travel story, overlaid with gay history, overlaid with… just a few too many levels to create a comfortable whole.
Within this miscalculation, there is much to praise. Vernon does show a deft hand at quickly defining characters and capturing the constantly shifting loyalties of a group of people. He also shows a great deal of compassion for all his creations. His music is appropriate, varied and appealing, and his lyrics are often effective in expanding his characterizations. (He has less luck when he attempts the more generic type numbers for the ensemble and the drag queen’s routine).
Vernon’s problem comes with consistency within the story. The bar denizens are suspicious of the newcomer, but seem to accept his time-travelling tale (and his cell phone) with little hesitation. However, they react badly to his plans to shut down the bar, even though he’s talking about doing it 40+ years in the future. And Wes himself seems confused, wanting different things from moment to moment, with explanation for his changes, which robs his final epiphany of the power it might have if the character’s journey had more consistency.
The cast cannot be faulted. Jeremy Pope does everything he can to define the character of Wes and delivers his numbers with power. Taylor Frey, as his romantic opposite, is even better, with a sweet voice and a compelling manner that delves into his complex character. Ben Mayne, though too good-looking for the constant insults about his face, scores strongly as the outcast of the regulars, a homeless man who desperately just wants to be noticed. And Nancy Ticotin gives a moving performance as a devoted mother who had adjusted with strength to the changes in her life. At the performance I attended, understudy April Ortiz was spot on as Henri, the owner and den mother of the bar.
And then there is Nathan Lee Graham as Willie. The resident queen of the bar, loud, wise-cracking and flirtatious, the character verges on the cliché, but Graham is fresh and funny, never stepping out of character, even while interacting with the audience and seemingly ad libbing with them (some members of the audience is seated at tables on the stage and are treated by the actors as other patrons of the bar). Graham is the live wire of the show, and every moment he is center stage is electric.
The action sprawls across a wonderfully and detailed set designed by Jason Sherwod, extending into the audience in all directions. (Wherever you are sitting, be prepared to turn at times to see the action). The direction by Scott Ebersold, which merges seamlessly with the choreography of Al Blackstone, manages to focus on the important characters at each moment, even as the emphasis shifts from character to character during the play. If occasionally overly busy, considering the space and the diffuse script, it is a very good job.
The View UpStairs is flawed, but there is more than enough pleasure to be had in this evening of theater to make it a worthwhile bar to spend an hour or two in.
The ViewUpstairs, produced by Invisible Wall Productions, is at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, NYC. Show runs about 100 minutes with no intermission. (Due to the staging and design, there is no late seating). There are performances every night except Mondays, with two shows per night on Friday and Saturday. (No matinees.) The run is scheduled through May 21.
Production website with more info: www.theviewupstairs.com Online ticket sales: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/351 Or phone 866-811-4111