A Trump-era New York fashion designer mysteriously transported to the polyester-clad New Orleans gay scene of the Nixon years sounds more like a plot for a Twilight Zone spoof than a serious stage musical.
Roll with it, however, and you’ll find writer-composer Max Vernon’s The View UpStairs not just entertaining but frequently moving and unavoidably uplifting.
Vernon’s scenario is a healing fantasy coda to a real-life tragedy, an arson attack on a New Orleans gay bar that killed 32 people in 1973. It was, prior to the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando in 2016, the worst single homophobic hate crime in modern American history.
Enter Wes (Henry Brett), young, painfully hip and so hot right now on social media.
But hot has yet to translate into dollars and so he’s moving home to New Orleans to create a new storefront for his fashion label.
Wes has taken over the lease of a decrepit, fire-damaged building in the French Quarter. After collecting the keys and snorting a celebratory line, the building’s past comes alive in the form of the denizens of the bar in its glory days.
Behind the bar is Henri (played by Markesha McCoy, a singer of startling power). At the piano is Buddy (Anthony Harkin), who plays for tips and has a wife and family in the outside world.
The barflies include: Puerto Rican drag queen Freddy (Ryan Gonzalez) and his bustling mum Inez (Martelle Hammer); Richard (Thomas Campbell), pastor of his own church of love; the flamboyant Willie (Madison McKoy), the chiselled and laconic Patrick (Stephen Madsen, rocking the polyester), and Dale (David Hooley), a barely tolerated hustler.
After a rafter-raising opening number, Vernon trades on time-travel humour as Millennial Wes negotiates a world sans dating apps, Google and Instagram and a more hands-on approach to hooking up. Later, the play takes a warmly didactic turn with Wes learning lessons in the value of community, about queer history, about true love and, ultimately, about respect for those who have gone before.
Vernon’s script has its mawkish moments but Shaun Rennie’s fine production (meticulously designed by Isabel Hudson and seductively lit by Trent Suidgeest) casts a comprehensive spell from the minute you enter the room. You can even take a personal trip back in time before the show, order a drink from the bar (it’s 1973 in everything but the prices) and join in the odd showtune with Buddy.
Vernon’s songs are hooky, a mix of 70s disco-funk, MOR rock and millennial pop. Fine voices and notably strong acting keeps everything buoyant even when things get a little sudsy.
The show’s fiery climax is powerfully realised in sound (Neil McLean), smoke haze and a blazing crown of festoon lights.
But it’s the individual performances that make the biggest impact: Brett delivers Wes’s snarky bon mots with aplomb; Madsen smoulders; Harkins’ Buddy is perfectly played (picture Peter Allen had he not made it big) and McKoy’s black queen is delightful.
Very much recommended.