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Theater review: The View UpStairs discos back to gay New Orleans in the 1970s

The View UpStairs
Photograph: Kurt Sneddon

★★★☆☆
Wes (Jeremy Pope)—a self-obsessed millennial aspiring fashion designer—just wants to be loved. So does this heartfelt yet disappointingly maudlin musical about the good old, bad old days of being gay in the '70s. After fleeing NYC and buying a decrepit building in his hometown of New Orleans to turn into a store, Wes is magically transported back 40-plus years when the space served as a gay bar full of colorful queer folk. There's Henri (Frenchie Davis, the best singer of the bunch), the lesbian who runs the joint. Buddy (Randy Redd), the resident pianist who passes as straight out in the streets. Willie (Nathan Lee Graham, the audience favorite), a sass master seemingly channeling Lola from Kinky Boots. Puerto Rican drag queen Freddy (Michael Longoria) and his supportive mom/stylist Inez (Nancy Ticotin). Richard (Benjamin Howes) sporting a clerical collar though he's singing with the choir, not converting them. And a pair of hustlers: the stud Patrick (Taylor Frey, crush-worthy) and the dud, Dale (Ben Mayne, making a scary guy sympathetic).

That's a lot of disparate characters to pack into a one-act musical, which may be why they're painted and (mostly) played in such broad strokes under Scott Ebersold's unsubtle direction. Each one gets a big, defining song in the spotlight, but it soon starts to feel like a pride parade of gay archetypes.

The story, such as it is, involves Wes getting schooled in queer history, and realizing he has it pretty good compared to the generations that came before. (Though a presumably recently tacked-on rant at the end about the rise in hate crimes under our new regime undermines that message.) Wes also discovers he's worthy of love; it's just too bad they live in different time periods (there's no data plan for that!).

Loosely inspired by a (spoiler—in case you don't know the history or read the program insert) infamous 1973 arson attack on a New Orleans gay bar that left 32 people dead, The View UpStairs is clearly a passion project for book writer, composer and lyricist Max Vernon. He's definitely got talent: His eclectic '70s-style tunes are catchy (sometimes because they sound like other songs) and his lyrics are serviceable (though Justin Stasiw's too-loud sound design frequently muddies them). It's commendable that Vernon wants to celebrate the gays who came (out) before but while the ensemble works hard and seems to be having a blast, the result feels as derivative as a drag queen doing Cher.

The most original aspect of the production is Jason Sherwood's immersive set, a glorious explosion of kitschy, retro bric-a-brac that tumbles out into the house. It takes your breath away as you enter and promises so much glamor to come. Too bad in the end it's a rhinestone in the rough, not a diamond.

Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project (Off Broadway). Book, music and lyrics by Max Vernon. Directed by Scott Ebersold. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission. Through May 21. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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