By Colin Douglas
On June 24, 1973, the final day of Gay Pride Week in the Big Easy and the fourth anniversary of the riots and uprising at the Stonewall Bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a tragedy took place in New Orleans. As a group of gay men and women gathered at the Upstairs Lounge, a modest little LGBT bar located in a three-story building in the Gay Triangle of the French Quarter, a homophobic arsonist set fire to the second floor establishment.
That night, the establishment was packed for the Stonewall commemoration. Many of the victims were also members of the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church, who often held services at this locale. As a result, 29 innocent victims perished that night and three more passed away from their injuries in the days that followed. As of that date, more gay and lesbian individuals died than in any previous single incident. It was also the deadliest fire in the history of New Orleans.
Besides the obvious tragedy of losing 32 innocent individuals, gathered for an harmless celebration of love and gay freedom, the New Orleans police department all but ignored the tragedy. No elected officials in the entire state of Louisiana ever issued statements of sympathy. Advertised by word-of-mouth, only a small, private prayer service took place the following evening. Several families refused to claim the remains of their own sons, afraid to be shunned by the community for having a gay family member; and four unidentified victims were eventually buried in Potter’s Field, NOLA’s pauper cemetery. And while the most likely suspect was a troublemaker who’d been ejected from the bar earlier that evening, the official cause of this horrible event is still listed as “undetermined origin.” The case was then closed.
This appalling catastrophe never received the national attention that the deplorable 2016 mass shooting at the LGBT Pulse Nightclub garnered. Any mention of the event minimized the fact that this was a blatant attack on the New Orleans gay community. By the 21st century, gay acceptance was wider spread, and as a result, the Orlando tragedy became the focus of the media. All we know about the Upstairs Lounge tragedy comes from personal accounts. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen did everything he could to lead twenty of his friends and customers to safety. The others became trapped inside the second floor bar, where they either burned to death or died of smoke inhalation. The church’s assistant pastor escaped but returned to rescue his boyfriend. They were later found clinging to each other in the charred remains of the building.
Playwright Wayne Self, a native of Louisiana, was so moved by two books that recounted the event, along with a 2017 documentary entitled Upstairs Inferno, that he felt compelled to create his own heartfelt memorial to both the victims and the few survivors. He wrote Upstairs: A Musical Tragedy in remembrance of the men and women who only wanted what everyone wants in life: to be loved.
By the finale of Self’s musical, presented by One-Eyed Puppy Productions at the Pride Arts Center, we find he’s focused mainly on Buddy, the bartender who will be forever haunted by the ghosts of that night’s tragedy, and Agneau, the fictional name given to a young man who confessed to starting the fire in retaliation for being thrown out of the club that night. Agneau is haunted by his own ghost. It’s his Bible-thumping, Baptist Uncle, whose strict, conservative and bigoted beliefs forever echo in the young man’s mind. The play also features Adam, Buddy’s fickle boyfriend; Mitch, the goodhearted assistant pastor, and his partner, a former hustler named Horace. In addition, we meet Inez, Horace’s mouthy, opinionated mother and her older son, George, who is the Lounge’s resident pianist. The club’s entertainment the night of the fire was provided by Reggie, a drag performer who goes by the stage name of Mercy Goodman. He’s accompanied by his hardworking, put-upon assistant, Richard. The musical attempts to weave together the stories of these ten people.
The resulting production is a mixed bag fraught with difficulties. First, let it be said that everyone’s heart is in the right place. However, Director Eric Coleman has a challenge with this musical. One of the problems is that the script lacks clear focus. Self’s drama is spread too thin between too many characters and it’s difficult for the audience to know who’s story we’re watching. Granted, this is a memorial to everyone involved in this tragic event, but it’s also art. Viewers need to know where to invest their empathy.
We begin thinking that this play is going to be about reformed hustler Horace, his meek but kindly boyfriend Mitch, his piano-playing older brother, George and the two boys’ indomitable mother, Inez. Then suddenly our attention is grabbed by Agneau, a cute, young new bar patron, whom we discover to be a kind of Jekyll and Hyde. At first he appears wide-eyed and innocent, intoxicated by the sexual freedom of being out of the closet. Then, just as suddenly, Agneau turns into a bitter, angry monster who can’t turn off the voices in his head. All he can hear are the sermons preached by his twisted, intolerant, yet deceased Uncle. Then we’re diverted by the relationship between Reggie and his assistant Richard, who’ve arrived to provide musical and mirthful entertainment for the Lounge customers. A couple of lengthy scenes in the dressing room explore their testy relationship long before Reggie, as Mercy Goodman, ever hits the stage. Finally we see that Buddy, the Upstairs Lounge’s bartender, is becoming increasingly jealous of the attention that Adam, his current partner, is receiving from Agneau. Adam, in turn, enjoys the attention he’s receiving by the new kid in town when Buddy seems too busy to notice him.
But just who are we rooting for in this musical? Self’s script doesn’t provide the subtle shifts of focus among its characters that we see in other plays. “Balm in Gilead,” Lanford Wilson’s portrait of the drug addicts, prostitutes and thieves who frequent a certain cafe in New York City, comes to mind. While exploring the lives of several secondary characters, Wilson’s play focuses primarily on the relationship between Joe and Darlene. Had Self decided to direct the audience’s attention to one specific couple, and downplay the scenes with the others, the play would be clearer and shorter.
Poor directorial decisions, such as employing frequent blackouts between scenes, rather than simply fading the lights, would’ve gently taken us into the next scene. Right now, Eric Coleman’s production is too staccato, with its abrupt segues. Another problem is in his staging. With the L-shaped seating configuration of this venue, often an entire scene is directed with the actors’ backs or profiles playing to half of the audience. Another problem is the variety of acting styles present in this cast. Choose one and stick with it. Coleman allows everything from realism to melodrama from his actors.
Self’s score is a curious mixture of musical styles. Sometimes we enjoy a lovely, earnestly sung ballad; then we’re treated to a frivolous, uptempo tune; but then, quite suddenly, and more often than necessary, we’re forced to endure several discordant, operatic recitatives, sung by actors who simply aren’t up to the vocal challenge. When three separate lines of music are sung in unison by three actors, and there’s no trace of harmony, the audience can only cringe in response. It becomes impossible to understand the lyrics, at this point. And often the songs simply go on…and on…and on. Judicious cutting, of both dialogue and music, would be welcome in this script. Less is always more.
The cast ranges from pretty good to amateur. Notable performances come from Nate Strain as the disturbed young Agneau. This actor credits theatrical experience in his bio that has obviously trained Mr. Strain how to create a realistic character. He delivers most of his dialogue with honesty, as if speaking from his heart. It’s when the script calls for the actor to go to the dark side, Mr. Strain can be a little hard to accept. His real strength lies in being one of the best vocalists in the production.
Another fine actor in this musical is Joshua Heinlein. As Mitch, the soft-spoken Assistant Pastor, Mr. Heinlein plays a character who seems genuinely conflicted by his split life. He’s a father of two children, currently separated from his wife. His emotionally candid scenes with Horace (nicely played and sung by newcomer Trenton Johnson) feel genuine and heartfelt; and the actor has a beautiful 11th hour ballad that could be the breakout song from this musical, if only the program provided a playlist.
Although he doesn’t have very many dramatic scenes, Alex Iacobucci, as Horace’s older brother George, not only tinkles the ivories with style, providing accompaniment for the rest of the cast, but he has a lovely singing voice himself. Iacobucci provides a professional tone to the musical moments. And, although his character is the most theatrical of this story, Justin Fowlkes’ Reggie/Mercy Goodman is funny and gutsy. Providing yet one more trained voice among this cast, Fowlkes brings talent, humor and valor to his role.
Self’s admirable mission is to keep the memory of these 32 innocent victims alive. He also hopes that by telling this story he will enlighten audiences, keeping the knowledge of this horrendous event forever in our conscience. With Obama in the White House, it seemed that the GLTB lifestyle was becoming more generally accepted. However, with the election of our current President, a man who’s divided the nation instead of uniting it, homophobia has reared its ugly head, once more.
At least in this Chicago production, Self’s musical unfortunately falls short. In addition to the problems already cited, little details stand out. They include using a prop floor mic that fails to amplify the singers’ voices, or allowing the two drag performers to walk around in heels while wearing floor length gowns that are dangerously too long. Staging problems, vocal difficulties and dissonant melodies are also difficult. The inclusion of three additional musicians, perched high above the stage and partially hidden behind the walls of the set, enhances the musical accompaniment, but isn’t entirely necessary. The excellent support provided by Alex Iancobucci on piano would suffice. Sadly, the heart of this piece beats beneath the surface, but the show’s problems cloud a musical that feels like a work in progress.
One-Eyed Puppy Productions presents “Upstairs: A Musical History” through November 26 at The Broadway at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.