The View UpStairs, the latest production at Desert Rose Playhouse, proves once again that the theater is in good hands with new producing artistic director Robbie Wayne.
Given our current political climate, where bigotry and hatred of those who are “different” seems more blatant and accepted than it’s been in years, this musical—the book, music and lyrics are by Max Vernon—is something we all need to see. The story centers around a 1973 arson attack at a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that killed 32 people. Up until the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, it was the worst mass murder of gay Americans in our country’s history.
As the show opens, we’re transported back to the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the horrific crime. Set designer Bruce Weber has outdone himself here: The place is fabulously gaudy, tacky and filled with bling—topped off with a large nude portrait of a reclining Burt Reynolds behind the bar. Some audience members actually sit at tables onstage, making attendees feel like we’re part of the action. The lounge is a place where gay men could be themselves, sing, dance and escape from a society not yet ready to accept them.
The story soon fast-forwards to the present day. After several unsuccessful years in New York, aspiring fashion designer Wes (Van Angelo) has returned to New Orleans and purchased the rundown building which formerly housed the UpStairs Lounge, hoping to turn it into a boutique. One evening, Wes is transported back in time, and the characters who once frequented the lounge are all around him. At first weirded out by it all, Wes eventually goes with the flow, and quickly develops a strong attraction to the tall, handsome hustler Patrick (Matt E. Allen).
Underscoring all the action is piano man Buddy (Ben Reece), an Elton John wannabe who’s still in the closet about his homosexuality. Club owner and bartender Henri (Ceisley Jefferson) keeps an eye on things, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Patrons include the homeless Dale (Jacob Samples); Puerto Rican drag performer Freddy (Anthony Nannini), and his mother, Inez (Siobhan Velarde); and the aging, flamboyant Willie (DarRand Hall). Rounding out the group is Rita Mae (Ruth Braun), who leads prayer services for the Metropolitan Community Church at the bar, trying to establish allies in the community by soliciting donations for crippled children.
Director/choreographer Robbie Wayne has put together an excellent ensemble cast; there is not one weak link. Even in brief appearances as a cop in both the past and present day, Miguel Arballo is memorable.
Reece makes Buddy’s regret over his failed music career, conflict about his sexuality and continued lust for Patrick (after a brief fling) palpable. Jefferson is terrific as proprietor Henri, exhibiting a great combination of sass and soul.
As drag queen Freddy/Aurora, Nannini oozes charisma. His drag number, “Completely Overdone,” is fantastic, and the warmth between him and his doting mother (the fabulous Velarde) is genuine. Inez has totally accepted her son’s life choices—“I think gay men are more fun, anyway,” she says—and has one of the better songs, “Learn to Play Along.” Hall’s “old queen” Willie is a hoot; we cannot take our eyes off him as he minces around the stage, squeezing the drama out of every line.
Samples’ Dale is heartbreaking. Crushed and embarrassed by his poverty, he touches us all when singing “Better Than Silence.” It reminds each of us of times when we, too, have felt invisible. Equally effective is Braun as preacher Rita Mae.
In the pivotal roles of Wes and Patrick, Wayne has struck gold with Van Angelo and Matt E. Allen. Their onstage chemistry is strong, and both have excellent singing voices. The musical highlight of the night was Allen’s ballad revealing his parents’ efforts to “cure” him of his homosexuality. It was riveting, raw and authentic.
Kudos to Robbie Wayne and Ruth Braun for spot-on costumes, and musical director Jaci Davis for overseeing the pre-recorded accompaniment for the singers, which works quite well.
The only noticeable flaws on opening night were occasional projection issues and a missed note here and there—both problems likely to be remedied as the run continues.
Two things struck me as the cast took their bows on opening night. First, each character in this play seems so real—their joys, sorrows, longing for recognition and acceptance resonate with all of us. Second, sadly, is the possible deterioration of LGBT rights today. Let’s hope that this kind of theatrical experience helps people realize that deep inside, we truly are all the same.
The View UpStairs is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.