A vital piece of gay history is unearthed in LGBT+ musical The View UpStairs at the Soho Theatre
“In this kingdom we’ve found
Where the queens and clones collide
And though it reeks of cheap cologne
It’s my favorite escape from the world outside”
There’s something so powerful about the power of theatre to educate as well as ilustrate. The 1973 arson attack that took the lives of 32 people in a New Orleans gay bar was actually the most tragic hate crime until Orlando but it remains comparatively little known. So Max Vernon’s choice to use it as inspiration for his musical The View UpStairs is freighted with significance from the off.
And at its best, it is hugely powerful. A cross between a kind of oral history and musical theatre, it fleshes out the lives of gay people in 1970s USA in all its multi-faceted nature through its collection of what might at first be mistaken as stock characters. The aspiring drag queen, the sharp-edged hustler, the dreamy twink, the closeted musician, the lesbian ‘mother’, all are present and correct.
What Vernon does so skilfully, is to knit them altogether to evoke the real sense of community, of chosen family within this group. Through an eclectic score that draws influence from the period, it is gorgeously drawn, beautifully compelling. Declan Bennett’s haunted Dale, Andy Mientus’ sweetly open Patrick, Cedric Neal’s charismatic Willy, Carly Mercedes Dyer’s magnificent barowner Henri, these are people you want to spend time with.
Less successful, for me at least, is the framing of the story. Present-day fashion designer Wes is in need of new premises and upon finding this rundown building, is swept up through the magic of rainbow-hued time travel to the night of the attack. And so layered into the story is a culture clash between the generations, which results in a rather unsubtle hammering of the point about the glibness of contemporary young gays.
Still, Tyrone Huntley works valiantly to make Wes not be entirely awful and any show that has the almighty Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in it has to be a winner. Fabian Aloise’s choreography works well in the intimate space, Bob Broad’s band sounds like a dream and the warmth of Jonathan O’Boyle’s production treats us all like regulars at this homely bar (right down to the onstage seating in Lee Newby’s set design). Perhaps not the perfect show, but certainly the right production for now.