By Josh Flanders
A high-energy musical set in a vibrant New Orleans gay bar in 1973, The View Upstairs knows what it is and what it wants to do, namely to break down barriers: barriers between the past and the present, between fantasy and reality, and between the musical itself and the audience.
The show’s action centers around the bar. When patrons take their seats, they may wonder whether nor not the play has begun as Caitlin Jackson (Henri), bursting with infectious liveliness, asks the audience if they need a drink and starts refilling beers, making it clear that people are expected to engage (at least emotionally) with what is happening onstage. This is indicative of the intimacy this show creates.
As the various characters who inhabit the UpStairs Lounge enter, Jeff Bouthiette (Buddy) saunters in wearing a dazzling coat-of-many-sparkles, works the room, and eventually takes his place at the piano. As Buddy, a closeted gay man, (as well as music director of the show), he deftly leads the ensemble through many of the songs, accompanied by a small band just off stage. Bouthiette’s dulcet, smooth tones reflect the image his character attempts to project, that of a straight man, clearly at odds with the reality of his environment as the resident piano player of a gay bar.
Kevin Webb plays Wes, a young fashion designer from 2017, who buys an abandoned building in the French Quarter of New Orleans and, through the magic of musicals, gets transported back in time to 1973. Webb is remarkable in his ability to go from annoying social media whore (“I have resting judgmental face”) to sensitive and lovable by the end of the show, leading the cast with powerful vocals and a hypnotic presence. His modern cynicism and natural tendencies to reduce everything to how this will benefit him and his social media following are slowly peeled away to reveal his humanity. Wes, like the audience, is viewing this world through a modern lens, pretending that “the future is great” all the while realizing that he is really only trying to convince himself of this falsehood.
The director, Derek Van Barham, along with choreographer Jon Martinez, keep the numbers tight and make great use of the small stage with such a large cast of characters, allowing each their own moment to shine. The two other standout performances, in addition to Webb and Jackson, are Frederick Harris (Willy) who, with a tremendous voice and hilarious wit (not to mention a fabulous outfit), steals every scene he is in; and Rubén Meléndez Ortiz, whose Freddy, struggles to fit into a world that does not welcome him, which resonates with emotional intensity. He also puts on a hell of a drag show.
Each character is given their opportunity to sing their story, though not every song hits with the same intensity. Sadly, some of the songs were difficult to understand due either to sound issues or the actors needing to project and sing more clearly. On the upside, The View Upstairs does a wonderful job balancing the placement of their musical numbers—one intense, the next more subdued, and back again, so the nearly 2-hour show (without intermission) goes by quickly, and the emotional impact of the final minutes definitely makes this show worth seeing.
Complete with a killer church number, classic drag show, and 70s-style songs, The View Upstairs bridges past and present to reveal the ongoing struggles of maintaining our humanity in an increasingly inhumane world.
Circle Theatre presents “The View Upstairs” through July 22 at The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. More information and tickets are available here.