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Flawed but good-hearted 'View UpStairs' musical honors victims of New Orleans gay bar fire

Installation View of Skylar Fein's "Remember the Upstairs Lounge" 2008

When I first learned about the deadly 1973 fire that swept through the UpStairs Lounge, it was a full 35 years after the tragedy.


Skylar Fein’s art installation “Remember the UpStairs Lounge” premiered at the Contemporary Arts Center in 2008 as part of Prospect New Orleans, the inaugural citywide arts exhibition.


Fein reimagined an entire CAC gallery as the 1970s French Quarter gay bar, with swinging saloon doors that opened up into a memorial filled with art and objects intended to capture a certain time and place — and to eulogize the 32 patrons and bar staff who died gruesome deaths trapped in the second-story bar when, supposedly, it was fire-bombed by a disgruntled patron (the prime suspect was never charged and died by suicide a year later).


It was the deadliest act of violence against the gay community in America at the time, later eclipsed by the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. 


Since then, the story of the UpStairs Lounge has gained a little more traction — a couple of documentaries, a few books — but it’s still a story largely unknown.


When it happened, the fire received some media attention and The Times-Picayune and States-Item published grisly photos.


But a strong anti-gay sentiment meant the loss of life wasn’t mourned widely and some bodies went unidentified to avoid associations by friends and families, effectively sweeping the tragedy under the rug — along with its legacy as a communal safe space that hosted prayer meetings, drag shows and theatrical performances.


A loving tribute

Among those trying to keep the UpStairs fire from fading into historical obscurity is Max Vernon, who penned the 2017 off-Broadway musical “The View UpStairs,” now in a limited run from Jefferson Parish Arts Society.


Directed by Jack Lampert, the show has its ups and downs, but ultimately serves as a loving tribute to a tight-knit community of gay men and the boozy oasis that was one of the few places they could love themselves and each other.


There’s no opening curtain at “The View UpStairs.” Instead, characters meander onto the barroom set — which includes a couple of pieces of set dressing from that Skylar Fein exhibition — and mingle to the disco sounds of the 1970s, decked out in bell bottoms, fringe jackets and black leather vests. And then things get weird.


The framework of the show includes a bit of time travel. In a present-day storyline, up-and-coming NYC fashion designer Wes has just moved to New Orleans and purchased a dingy piece of French Quarter real estate to renovate as his flagship store, oblivious to the heartbreaking history of the building at the corner of Iberville and Chartres. Soon after, though it’s not exactly clear how, Wes is transported back in time to the lively lounge where he encounters the spirits still inhabiting their old haunt.


A distracting detour

The plot device is silly and inexplicable, and too often veers off into a lazy subplot about how Wes (played by Donyae Asante with commanding flair) is caught up in the superficial world of fame-obsessed social media influencers and anonymous hook-up apps.


It’s an unnecessary and irrelevant detour because the show effectively fleshes out the boisterous UpStairs regulars and portrays a true connectedness without needing the ham-fisted foil of Wes’ 21st-century dependence on his smartphone and follower count.


The characters make “The View UpStairs” shine brightest, from brassy bartender Henri (Lauren Sparacello), to hustler Patrick (Ty Robbins), closeted piano player Buddy (Marshall Harris), resident spiritual leader Richard (Tom Vaughn), fabulous drag queen Freddy (Eddie Lockwood), and coked-out lowlife and implied arsonist Dale (Justice Hues).


There’s more, a whole 15-person ensemble inspired by, but not specifically based on, the UpStairs patrons killed in the fire, and it’s this strong and assured cast that elevates the show to a touching remembrance.


Glitzy, campy?

The production leans hard into glitzy, campy showmanship that’s likely to divide audiences.


At one point, Wes comments that he “feels like I’m in a music video by the Village People,” which is a pretty accurate assessment of the show’s aesthetic. Some might revel in the heavy-handed party vibe, though others might find it at odds with the sensitive subject matter.


The songs have yet to get a mention here because, despite some memorable performances, they’re mostly forgettable. Vernon, the show creator (who also contributed music and lyrics to last year’s Broadway flop “KPOP”), paints by numbers with the lyrics and melodies, though the cast, to their credit, manage to muster some emotional moments.


Like the namesake bar and its patrons, “The View UpStairs” is flawed, imperfect and, at times, misguided. But with a good strong heart beating beneath the make-do glamor and glitter, the show is sincere in its commitment to remembering the UpStairs Lounge. 




WHEN: Through Sept. 17

WHERE: Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive, Metairie

TICKETS: $25-$75 (student, senior and military discounts available)