Review: Fact-based "UPSTAIRS - A MUSICAL TRAGEDY" Debuts at Hollywood Fringe Festival
Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic
Up until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting massacre in Orlando, Florida a year ago, the deadliest known attack on a gay club in U.S. history happened more than 40 years before at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana, located on the second floor of a three-story building at 141 Chartres Street. The alleged arson—which claimed 32 lives and injured many more—happened on the evening of June 24, 1973 on the final day of Pride Weekend that year.
28 people are said to have died at the scene of the fire that reports say lasted 16 minutes. Another victim died en route to the hospital. Then later, three more victims died as a direct result of their injuries.
The events prior to and following that deadly, still unsolved blaze make up the fact-based narrative of UPSTAIRS - A MUSICAL TRAGEDY, now having its Southern California debut at the Los Angeles LGBT Center through June 11 as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival of new works and coinciding with Gay Pride month. Featuring book, music and lyrics by Louisiana native Wayne Self, the new musical tries to piece together a timeline that led up to the tragic fire using both real and fantasy/speculative elements while shining a light on some of the real-life human inspirations that were lost or have been directly affected by what happened on that fateful day.
For this 90-minute, intermission-less musical, we are immediately dropped into the Up Stairs lounge and meet the denizens of this French Quarter gay "sanctuary"—a relatively safe space where people who walk in are encouraged to be themselves, even if secrets still linger as a default.
At its center is Buddy (Garrett Marshall), the club's friendly, hippie-chic owner whose relationship with his whip-smart, well-read lover Adam (Nick Losorelli) is on shaky ground. We also meet outspoken, seasoned drag queen Mercy (Shane Kroll) and her dutiful pal/protégé Reginald (Charles Romaine), as well as newly out assistant pastor Mitch (Duncan Barrett Brown) and his lover, the romantic but distrustful Louis (Ra'Shawn Durell). Also hovering around the periphery is Louis' lecture-spewing mom Inez (Kade'sha Barnard) and her other son Jean (musical director Sean Alexander Bart), who also serves as the bar's classically-trained pianist. Inez, herself a former addict and prostitute, fears for her son's troubled future, especially one that involves being in a relationship with a man still married to a faith that's counter to her son's lifestyle.
We—and the musical's other characters—soon meet a seemingly-sweet yet seemingly-troubled and nervous young man named Agneau (the mesmerizing Conor Sheehan). His body language suggests both trepidation and curiosity at entering the Up Stairs. Is he a so-called gay newbie? Likely so. It doesn't help that, occasionally, Agneau is haunted by a powerful, menacing voice yelling at him in textbook Southern Baptist scare-threat rhetoric. Poor kid.
As the handsome but awkward Agneau tries to interact with various patrons at the bar—and mostly striking out or putting his untrained foot in his mouth—he manages to catch the attention of Adam. Later, Buddy catches Agneau and Adam in a rather compromising position, forcing Agneau to flee away and Buddy reeling from the betrayal, one that doesn't seem to faze his boyfriend.
Much of the musical is spent going from one vignette to another, where focused characters provide surface details of their current drama that is eventually expressed in song. The interactions are soon interrupted by the buzz of the doorbell from downstairs. The sound of that buzzer, you see, was installed as a warning mechanism for the patrons upstairs, just in case something troubling (like, say, a homophobic cop) is about to enter downstairs.
Little did they know that the answered buzzer would usher in a fast-raging fire that will change everyone's lives forever. Via real TV clips, the audience is shown news reports about the fire, providing little to no substantial details about why the fire started or why several people couldn't get themselves out in time for safety. We see anguished cries from bystanders. We even see the charred remains of a man trying to pry himself out of a barred-window.
As expected from such tragic news footage, it's devastating and disheartening to watch.
After a rather lengthy technical set-up (dismantled partitions are repositioned to signal a new location), the musical fast-forwards two years to a meeting between two survivors of that tragic night—Buddy and Reginald, both of whom lost someone (and, really, many others) they care about.
The long overdue reunion allows both for some shared catharsis. Reginald regrets never expressing how he truly felt at the time, while Buddy is still haunted by not being able to save his inebriated boyfriend Adam—despite the fact that he was declared a hero for rushing so many others to safety out of the bar. Urged to get some closure, Buddy decides that it's time to confront the one other person who may have some answers to what happened that night.
And when Buddy finally pieces together the truth—dramatized before us in harrowing, haunting passion—the story is all the more enlightening.
An admirable work-in-progress with plenty of further potential, UPSTAIRS—in its current format (I was invited to one of the preview performances) has the makings to be one of the most compelling pieces of LGBT history set to musical theater. Like the fact-based LGBT movies "The Imitation Game" or "The Danish Girl," UPSTAIRS is the musical theater equivalent of a piece of entertainment designed to illuminate a little-known story that truly happened yet is largely unknown. Aside from perhaps the people and community directly affected by the New Orleans incident, little is publicized about the real-life tragedy that this musical is based on, triggering an audience curiosity that should serve this musical well as it continues to evolve into a more solid, self-assured musical.
Under the direction of Brian Brown (who also appears in the musical as the menacing, over-the-top "ghost" of Agneau's ultra-religious Uncle), this bare-bones produced musical is crammed into a very small black-box theater space at the LGBT Center with minimal costumes, sets and props—and yet is able to still convey the basics of the narrative fairly well (perhaps a more organized staging map, however, may have helped the show a bit in terms of entrances and exits, movements, and set re-configuring, etc.).
Self himself is a talented songwriter, sprinkling the show with many excellent contextual mixed genre songs that add rich layers to the overall picture. The songs also give many cast members the opportunity to showcase their vocal prowess.
The talented assembled cast—led by superb leading performances from Sheehan and Marshall—keeps the audience invested. It does take a bit of time before the audience warms to the bevy of crisscrossing characters introduced in UPSTAIRS, all of whom, it turns out are based on very real people involved in the tragedy. Funny enough, it took me a while to figure out that fierce singer Inez, despite being called "Mama" a lot (I thought it was just an affectionate nickname) is actually Louis' and Jean's mother, only because Barnard looks younger than both Durrell and Bart, respectively. A wig or costume detail may have sufficiently conveyed her age, but really, it's a minor gripe.
For me personally, I was shocked at how little I knew about this important and very tragic piece of LGBT history, that I feel has been largely forgotten or examined. Much like a lot of history's little-known facts and events, it takes a piece of art (whether stage or film) to bring it front and center and give it the spotlight it deserves. In that sense, I am glad UPSTAIRS exists.
But with that said, because the musical follows a rather straight-through, very linear path, some of the payoffs story-wise doesn't really arrive until the very last moment—instead of dolling out a teaser at the onset then dropping narrative easter eggs along the way, which should eventually give way to an even more of a punctuated ending.
What the musical could have used to heighten some of the initial drama is an opening prologue scene, allowing the audience to settle in and get "prepped" for what they're about to see. Audience members are, perhaps, assumed to already be knowledgeable of the history behind the events they're seeing, which may explain why the musical drops us into the bar right from the get-go.
In my opinion, to further personalize such a monumental historically-based event, I think the musical could have benefited enormously in seeing the real-life 1973 news clips it uses later in the show right at the top of the show's first act followed by the reunion/meeting between the two survivors Buddy and Reginald two years later, singing a shortened version of their lovely, powerful duet (which they would then reprise in full later in the third act). This way, their duet eventually becomes the springboard that triggers a flashback of the events that happened before the fire, introducing us to all the people involved—some of whom may or may not survive. This hovering sense of known danger can sometimes aid in the audience investing care in the characters more, even with little information given to us. The third act can then return to buddies Buddy and Reginald and their shared sadness and, soon, Buddy's eventual search for answers and closure.
For me, seeing UPSTAIRS in its early stages excites me for its future productions. It's a story that the world deserves to know, and its victims definitely deserve to have their story told.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the original 2013 production of UPSTAIRS courtesy of Wayne Self.
Remaining performances of UPSTAIRS - A MUSICAL TRAGEDY, presented as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017 continue at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, scheduled for June 8 at 10:30pm, June 9 at 6:30pm, June 10 at 6:30pm, and June 11 at 12:30 and 8:30pm. For tickets or for more information, visit upstairsmusical.com.