The thirty-four gay bar patrons who lost their lives in the 1973 arson attack on New Orleans’ UpStairs Lounge deserve far better than Max Vernon’s corny, clichéd The View UpStairs, now getting its West Coast Premiere at Celebration Theatre, and so do its crème-de-la-crème cast and creative team.

The corniness and clichés begin when self-absorbed, social-media-obsessed Wes (Matthew Hancock) gets time-traveled back four decades to the UpStairs just ninety intermissionless minutes before a hustler ejected for fighting with another customer comes back to set the bar ablaze.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of time travel if the vehicle is the right one, and yes, it’s fun at first to see how patrons react to Wes’s cell phone and trendy black garb just as it is to see his reaction to a pre-Grindr life. (He can’t imagine hooking up with a guy whose privates he hasn’t already seen on his phone.)

Time travel may have worked for Marty McFly in Back To The Future and for H.G. Wells in Time After Time and for Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married, but here it ends up trivializing lives that merit more respect.

Not that the characters Vernon has created are any less hackneyed.

Sassy drag queen? That’s Freddy (Rehyan Rivera). Hot hustler? That’s Patrick (Darren Bluestone). Not so hot hustler? That’s Dale (Joey Ruggiero). Butch lesbian? That’s Henri (Benai Boyd). Flamboyant sissy? That’s Willie (Pip Lilly). Closeted married man? That’s Buddy (Jake Anthony). Gay preacher? That’s Richard (Pat Towne). Understanding mother? That’s Inez (Chala Savino). Homophobic cop? That’s Cop (Travis York).

Still, even stereotypes like these need not have doomed The View UpStairs if only Vernon had given them the kind of compelling plot that propelled Ike Holter’s Hit The Wall just down the street from the Celebration a couple years back.

What we get instead is a series of musical soliloquies that do little more than showcase Vernon’s okay songwriting talents. Patrick soliloquizes about his younger days. Wes soliloquizes about the future ahead. Freddy soliloquizes about being sex on legs. Dale soliloquizes about hustling. Inez soliloquizes about being a PFLAG-style mom.

And nothing much happens in between, though to its credit, The View UpStairs does give Wes (and Millennials who haven’t yet tuned out) an eye-opening glimpse into the antigay laws a corrupt, brutal police force continued to enforce even in the early post-Stonewall years.

Then a character who’d previously seemed rather a nice guy gets turned upon by folks we’d previously thought to be rather nice guys and kaboom.

Fortunately for those can’t bear to see a musical end on a down note, everyone gets resurrected in glamour and glitz to sing The View UpStairs’s full-cast leave-‘em-smiling grand finale title song.

Director Michael A. Shepperd and cast do their best to make The View UpStairs come alive, Cate Caplin has choreographed some bouncy production numbers, and musical director Anthony leads a sensational onstage band, but The Boy From Oz this is not. Wes, as written, is entirely too unsympathetic a character, even with an actor as capable of charming an audience as Hancock, and the relationship that suddenly blossoms with hot NYC-to-L.A. transplant Bluestone is too out-of-the-blue to be believed. And the rest of Vernon’s characters don’t fare any better.

The View UpStairs does score multiple production design bulls-eyes. Scenic designer Alex Calle’s set and Michael O’Hara’s properties evoke 1970s New Orleans gay bar kitsch on an intimate scale, Michael Mullen’s costumes are his accustomed fabulous best, Byron Batista has confectioned some terrific wigs, and Martha Carter lights all of the above with pizzazz.

Musicians Johanna Chase, Nicole Marcus, and Max Wagner join Anthony to back up the cast’s grade-A vocals, though Eric Snodgrass’s mostly fine sound design doesn’t always allow lyrics to be heard clearly. Fight director Matt Orduña has designed some fairly believable punches.

The View UpStairs is produced by Andrew Carlberg and Jay Marcus. Mark Giberson, David Tran, Tommy Vergason and Alan Wethern are associate producers. Rebecca Schoenberg is production stage manager and Jillian Mayo is assistant stage manager.

Casting is by Jami Rudofsky. Lyle Colby Mackston, Parnell Damone Marcano, and Brittney S. Wheeler are swings.

The View UpStairs isn’t the first musical to pay tribute to the victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire. Wayne Self’s Upstairs: The Musical played less than a block from the Celebration at this past summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, and I would have liked to see if its creator managed to turn an event in which everybody dies before the night is over into song and dance.

Max Vernon’s heart is in the right place, but that’s about all that’s right about what he’s written. The Celebration Theatre cast and crew work hard to make The View UpStairs work, but sad to say, it doesn’t.

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Celebration Theatre at Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 28, 2017
Photos: Matthew Brian Denman

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