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RTP’s The View UpStairs remembers past tragedies, inspires present-day vigilance

“It's interesting to just see where we were back then and where we are now. And also it's kind of a warning, like, 'Don't take a step back,'” said cast member Bianca Bryan.

Jo Rozycki | August 21, 2017

Entering the Robert B. Moss Theatre at Richmond Triangle Players for The View UpStairs brought a sense of nostalgia. Perhaps it was the twinkling Christmas lights criscrossed along the ceiling and walls. Perhaps it was the original cast recording of “Aquarius.” Perhaps it was the life-size cutout of half-nude Burt Reynolds.

Directed by the ever-talented Lucian Restivo, The View UpStairs was carried by a powerfully talented cast telling the story of a historic event not many people know about, complete with a fictional twist to tell the story. The leading character Wes, played by Dale Sampson, exemplifies the shallow, social media-obsessed archetype, hungry for power and success. After buying out a burned-out building, Wes makes a “trip” back to 1973 to the building’s former state: The UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans Louisiana, a local gay bar and Metropolitan Community Church meeting place. Wes meets patrons who are based on real life people that populated the club. These patrons teach him about living in the 70’s as an LGBTQ person, and how that translates into their way of life. Wes is beginning to understand all of their lessons and become fond of his newfound friends when a horrific event takes him back to the present day.

While the story does seem rather cheesy and contrived, the root of the plot is based on the real-life arson of the UpStairs Lounge that left 32 people dead and countless more injured. Wes does not understand the gravity of the situation until he is thrown back into present day, which leaves the audience as breathless as he is, because the event is unknown in the present day (although it was the second-largest LGBTQ hate crime in history, after the Orlando Pulse killings). Composer, lyricist, and book writer Max Vernon does an excellent job of forcing the audience to understand the severity of this event, as well as its parallels to today’s attacks and injustices. And that is largely what Vernon is trying to accomplish. “It’s interesting to just see where we were back then and where we are now. And also it’s kind of a warning, like, ‘Don’t take a step back,’” said cast member Bianca Bryan in an interview with GayRVA.

Although the script and certain songs offer some corny moments that seem right out of a Lifetime movie, the cast is bursting with talent and does an excellent job delivering the shoulder-shrugging, tear-jerking, or knee-slapping moments. Dale Sampson oozes with talent, although his character is written as a stereotype. Love interest Patrick, played by Luke Newsome, has a winning smile and heartfelt ballads that leave you wanting more- especially in his bell-bottom jeans. Doug Schneider’s vocals are incomparable and showstopping, giving his piano-playing character Buddy a great foundation for his frequent musical numbers.

Although the entire cast is strong both vocally and in their acting chops, other noteworthy performances include Michael Schimmele’s performance as Freddy, specifically vocally and in drag; Bianca Bryan’s hilarious portrayal as Freddie’s Puerto Rican mother, Inez; and John Mincks’s misunderstood vagrant Dale.

A cast like this needs to be supported by excellent scenery and costume design, and boy were they ever. With period-appropriate costumes by Ryan Allen, bell-bottoms, ascots, deep v-neck button ups, and patterned dresses, the cast was decked out in the colorful and cut off. But the set took the prize. Designed by David Melton, the space at RTP was transformed beyond its normal realms, even expanding onto the walls and ceiling. String lights, posters of male pinups and pop stars of the decade were pasted all over the walls of the bar. Picking out pieces of memorabilia among the flags and shelves was a treat. It looked like any local bar, beloved by many. Lighting by Michael Jarett with giant washes of colors, such as blues and a stark red at the very end, set the moods from happy to sad to broken. However, some of the lighting cues were laggy, or were too overwhelming for the musical numbers.

It is comforting to see such important messages be delivered through the medium of theatre by so much talent, not only onstage but also technically. Although the script played a little too hard on gay stereotypes, the underlying message is understandable. Shallowness and obsessiveness with social media, hookup apps, and monetary success isn’t what is important. It does not build the meaningful relationships that are so necessary in life. In this day and age, media pounds disasters and events into the ground with overwhelming rapidity, leaving them behind in history books with brief synopses. The View UpStairs emphasizes the importance of honoring those fallen and lost, but also those that survived the gruesome and ugly events of the past. Max Vernon’s reimagination of the events of the UpStairs Lounge arson leaves chills and questions of “Is our nation regressing to what it once was?” The possibility is there. The View UpStairs shows how much progress that has been made since the 1970’s, and how quickly it can be taken back.