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The View Upstairs - Review by Jeffrey Leibham

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As the audience enters the theater you are magically transported back to the early 1970's, with musical hits from that era playing from a vintage jukebox on stage. Also dominating the upstage wall is a long bar, tended by matron Henri (Caitlin Jackson) who encourages all of the theater patrons to lose their inhibitions and not hesitate to "belly up to the bar" to purchase a drink before the show begins. A large majority of the 15-member ensemble are already on stage at this point as well, some breaking into smaller groups to softly sing along to the Tina Turner track or dance and engage the audience. Organically the show begins as the denizens of the bar gather around the piano to sing the opening number ("Some Kind of Paradise"). Nearly all types are represented in Max Vernon's book for his musical (he also penned the lyrics and wrote all of the music): Patrick, the sensitive hustler (Averis Anderson), Buddy, the bar's pianist who is a deeply-closeted husband and father (Jeff Bouthiette, who is also the music director), wise and experienced sage and frequent matchmaker Willy (Frederick Harris), Latinx drag queen Freddy (Ruben Melendez Ortiz) and his accepting and loving mother Inez (Selene Perez), alienated outsider Dale (Eric Lindahl) and the aforementioned butch owner Henri. Just as you are getting to know these colorful characters the stage goes black. Entering, with flashlights, are a New Orleans realtor and Wes (Kevin Webb), a supposedly successful New York fashion designer who is interested in purchasing the long-abondoned and decrepit property. Now in present day, the transition is jarring and doesn't always work. Had Vernon started his musical's concept here, in a ruined, burned-out locale that is in a state of disrepair and then slowly added in each of the characters one at a time, almost as if they were ghosts who can't escape their tragic fate, it would have had a much more dramatic impact.
Nonetheless, "The View UpStairs" is still an enjoyable night spent in the theater, and also a vivid history lesson on just how far the LGBTQ movement has advanced in its march towards total equality. But Vernon also does make some rather interesting points regarding the heavy price that was paid to reach that level as well as the threat that it may all regress in the present political climate in this country. By having the central character from 2018, carrying his cell phone loaded with hook-up apps, enter the world of 1973 Vernon can illustrate the art of cruising that was the only way for gay men to connect at that time. All of these characters gathered together, in a place where they felt safe, to do something that we find increasingly more and more challenging to do today -- talk with another human being, face to face.
The entire ensemble is very good, but Anderson, Harris and Jackson are particularly strong. Also, Perez has a nice moment late in the show that may have many hoping that more current parents have the same values and open-minded outlook. Too bad Vernon didn't give all of his characters some sort of backstory, even it were just a few lines of dialogue. Instead, they just become silent members of the ensemble who have to shuffle around the set and add their voices to the chorus during the musical numbers. These five actors -- Ben F. Locke (who is also the dance captain), Jennifer Ledesma, Cari Meixner, Juwon Tyrel Perry and Roy Samra -- deserve more. The always innovative choreographer Jon Martinez has done a splendid job of moving so many bodies around a slightly tight playing area, where any surface becomes fair game, even if it's upon the back of another performer. Director Derek Van Barham has sprinkled the show with liberal doses of joy and acceptance as these strong and brave individuals teach each other, and ultimately us, the importance of that constant push towards self-love.
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"The View UpStairs" runs through Sunday, July 22. Shows will be performed on
Thursdays 8:00 PM
Fridays 8:00 PM
Saturdays 2:30 PM and 8:00 PM
Sundays 2:30 PM
Mondays (Industry Performances) 8:00 PM
Running time is 100 minutes, with no intermission.
The Broadway, Pride Arts Center. 4139 North Broadway, Chicago
Tickets: $30.00. Monday Industry Nights $20.00. Tickets on sale now at www.circletheatrechicago.com