Left – Markesha McCoy and Madison McKoy. Cover – Cast of The View UpStairs. Photos – John McCrae
The Hayes Theatre is becoming a Mecca for those interested in discovering unique and fascinating music theatre, both old and new. As part the city’s 40th Anniversary of Mardi Gras they have staged the hit off-broadway musical The View Upstairs by Max Vernon – a bittersweet trip back into the vibrant and high camp culture of 1970’s New Orleans.
Based on a true story, The Upstairs Lounge was fire bombed in 1973 killing 32 people in an horrific act of homophobic violence. Not cheery subject matter for a musical you may indeed suggest. But this show embraces instead the time before, when its patrons felt safe to live and love and find themselves part of a community, despite the hate of the world that rejects them lurking right outside the door. A little fairy dust allows young designer ‘Wes’ to be transported back in time to the club’s heyday after he buys what’s left of the burnt-out premises. There he discovers a place of camaraderie and entertainment, a far cry from the alienating solitude of todays phone dating apps. But as with all ‘families’ there are tensions and past histories that create conflict.
Isabel Hudson creates an astonishing set in the small space, full of colour and kitsch. The Hayes seems to be becoming an exciting challenge for talented designers wanting to morph this tiny box into something extraordinary. Like Cabaret and Assassins before it, the space is wonderfully transformed. Teamed with Anita Yavitch’s spot on costumes the show is a visual feast.
It’s a warm and welcoming show, packed with some extraordinary talent. The voice of Markesha McCoy as Henri stole the show for me vocally, as it did the rest of the audience from the applause, but there are other great singers in this show too. David Hooley’s strong rich voice was a great addition to the mix, lending depth to the tortured Dale, and Anthony Harkin has some great vocal fun with Buddy. Looking like Phil Collins and playing like Elton John he opens the show energetically and sustains it throughout. And Ryan Gonzales turns in a powerhouse performance as Freddy, full of strut and pout and Latino sass. But the entire company are great, and the show was at its best in the stronger vocal moments. However, the score did falter for me on occasion, and I felt it was mostly due to the vocal arrangements which were done by its author. I felt he too often let the songs simply peter out and hang in the air, afraid to let anything much resolve to a satisfying musical conclusion. Despite there being some wonderful melodies discernible, it ultimately left me feeing cheated of a big song or two, that I could hear were in there somewhere. The music is nevertheless generally vibrant and engaging, and Musical director Nicholas Griffin keeps his 5 piece band humming along nicely in the retro styled score.
It is a tough expectation to ask a somewhat vacuous millennial character to bind together a show about heart and community. But that is the challenge facing Henry Brett as Wes. His performance is confident and assured, and his light contemporary vocal style was appropriate for Wes, but in the end, I found it hard to engage much with the emotionally cool, mannered character or believe the somewhat clunky political rant at the end. His love interest Patrick is played by Stephen Madsen, fresh off the set of Muriel’s Wedding, and he acquits himself nicely in this role, although I think there are darker elements of the character yet to be explored as the run progresses. And Martelle Hammer turns in a vivacious performance as Freddy’s supportive mother, while Madison McKoy floats fabulously through as Willie, his rich voice used to effect late in the piece.
Director Shaun Rennie creates an energetic engaging production and there are some clever understated choreographic touches by Cameron Mitchell. The characters fill the small space with vibrancy and Trent Suidgeest’s lighting is atmospheric and warm. The opening night audience were very supportive and overall the show is both touching and a whole lot of fun.
The recent Orlando massacre reminds us all that the tragedy of the Upstairs Lounge is not an isolated event. While equality may have been achieved according to law in many places, there are still individuals, twisted by hate, who take issue with the freedom to love whoever you choose. The View Upstairs pays homage once again to the resilience and joy of this community, in a tale that spans decades, and it is a wonderful offering full of style and heart for the Mardi Gras season.
Invisible Wall Productions and Sugary Rum Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co presents
The View Upstairs
Book, Music and Lyrics Max Vernon
Director Shaun Rennie
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co | 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Dates: 8 February – 11 March 2018
Tickets: $65 – $60
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337