It was a sweltering 38+ degrees celsius (100+ fahrenheit) outside so I grabbed a last minute ticket to the Soho Theatre on the promise of air-conditioning and showtunes. Turns out the air-con was either not working, or was so weak it made no difference. So I wasn’t exactly excited to sit through an hour and 45 minutes of off-Broadway musical theatre.
In the space of a week I’ve seen two off-Broadway, queer musicals in London, but they were worlds apart in quality. One was so awful I chose not to review it (it just seemed cruel). Thankfully the other is Max Vernon’s The View Upstairs, and it gave me life despite the sauna-like conditions.
Set in a 1970s gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, The View UpStairs tells the story of a group of patrons at the Upstairs Lounge before a horrific homophobic arson attack that claimed 32 lives. The bar is filled with an eclectic mix of characters (from a Latinx drag queen and his mom, the African-American lesbian bar owner, a closeted, married musician, a hustler with mental health issues and more). Told through the eyes of a 2019 millenial, each character’s story highlights the difference between gay life in the 70s and today.
Vernon’s score is energetic, bold and filled with pop-hooks. Genre-jumping, but always keeping one foot in the 70s. The cast is made up of some of London’s best voices: Tyron Huntley, Declan Bennett, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, Cedric Neal, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Derek Hagan, Garry Lee, Joseph Prouse, John Partridge (and guest American Andy Mientus). Vocally this show is just astounding and this cast smooth over the show’s weaker spots (and the oppressive heat) with a lot of vocal fireworks.
Tyron Huntley’s Wes, our suddenly-out-of-time Millenial, is firey and funny. Andy Mientus has a sweet, soft energy that cuts through the show’s bluster with some real heart. As an onstage couple they ground the whole show. The culture-clash jokes keep the mood light and fun (even if the repeated “aren’t Millenials annoying” punchlines get a bit repetitive).
The show is at its best when the music is playing. Some great choreography from Fabian Aloise keeps the small stage moving and the cast appear to be having a great time. I only wish there was more time to get past the “one-character, one-song” format that feels more like a concert than a show. The characters each have great stories to tell, it’s slightly frustrating they are contained in a single moment. I wanted more time to explore each of them and give them real character arcs.
With the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising this year, the spotlight has also been shone on other key moments in queer history, like Tales of the City’s reference to the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, and here we explore the setting of a homophobic mass murder (that would stand as America’s most deadly until the devastating Pulse nightclub shootings in 2016). As the character of Wes breaks down his own very modern need to show the 70s patrons an ‘instagram-worthy’ view of the future, his own fear of current politics burst to the surface.
As all the fun, laughter and love of the previous hour and a half come to a sobering stop. Which brings me back to the-awful-show-I-won’t-review – it also featured a serious finale. The awful-show managed to be offensive while trying to be heartfelt, thankfully The View UpStairs reaches a more satisfying conclusion.
I’ve been listening to the Off-Broadway cast recording of The View UpStairs on repeat since seeing the show which probably tells you all you need to know. The heatwave has passed, go and see the show!