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The View Upstairs

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In 1973, a horrendous arson-set fire claimed the lives of 32 people in the UpStairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar. Until recently, the details were unknown by few beyond NOLA and LGBTQ historians. But the tragedy seems to be in the zeitgeist. Several books have detailed the fire and its aftermath, and there are two recent documentaries as well as two stage musical treatments. Interestingly enough, both musicals have been produced in Los Angeles within months of each other and on the same block.

Celebration Theatre opens its Season of Living Out Loud with the West Coast premiere of The View Upstairs. With book, music, and lyrics by Max Vernon, the musical attempts to bring a contemporary viewpoint to lives that, in a barely post-Stonewall period, were still lived mostly underground and in shame.

Wes (Matthew Hancock) is a present-day fashion designer who has just purchased the site of the UpStairs Lounge for his new boutique. Nerves and excitement about the new venture find him medicating with a couple of lines of coke and, quicker than you can say Outlander, he’s in the UpStairs Lounge on the evening of the fire.

This can’t be a drug-induced hallucination, as Wes obviously knows nothing about the bar, and Vernon’s book offers no logical reason for this apparent time travel. For a designer, it takes Wes a long time to notice that everyone’s clothing is something beyond retro. And, while much is made of differences in customs or slang usage, neither Wes nor the bar patrons question what he’s doing there.

We meet the denizens of the bar and they’re a comfortably familiar group of stereotypes. There’s Buddy (Jake Anthony) who tickles the ivories in the bar but has a wife/beard at home. Henri (Benai Boyd) is the butch bartender who is protective of her regulars and really a marshmallow behind the exterior. Willie (Pip Lilly) is the wise-cracking queen holding court at the bar. Richard (Pat Towne) is the woefully underwritten MMC pastor. Freddy (Rehyan Rivera) is the Lola Montez-inspired drag act, and Inez (Chala Savino) is his mother who is just proud of her boy. Finally, we have the competing hustlers; Patrick (Darren Bluestone) is the personable guy whom everyone loves, while Dale (Joey Ruggiero) is the troubled guy who is shunned by everyone. Each of these characters gets a programmatic number to tell us who they are and what’s important to them.

Vernon’s heart is in the right place, but his book is problematic. The insertion of a contemporary character in 1973 seems motivated by an assumption that audiences won’t understand these characters on their own. The clash of cultural differences only really crystallizes in the scene when a Cop (Travis York) enters the bar to terrorize the queers. Wes doesn’t understand the concept of deference and gets roughed up by the Cop in a chilling reminder of what the show could have been if it showed us, rather than telling us. (Fight Direction by Matt Orduna.)

Vernon’s score is stronger, with a variety of sounds and styles. His lyrics, when audible over the band, are disappointingly pedestrian. Several cast members might also have benefitted by placing their songs in a lower key.

Michael A. Shepperd directs the 10-member cast on the tiny stage with his usual grace and brio. He guides his talented cast into performances that are as strong as the material allows. Cate Caplin has choreographed some high energy group dances which feel believably spontaneous.

Over the past couple of years, Matthew Hancock has proved himself a versatile actor capable of memorable performances in a wide variety of roles. He certainly gives his all to Wes, despite the fact that the role makes little dramatic sense. Darren Bluestone’ Patrick is what the bar patrons would probably call a tall drink of water. He is also a deliciously sexy and charismatic performer. In fact, Hancock and Bluestone are almost good enough to make their characters’ bewilderingly swift falling in love, breaking up and getting back together convincing.

Other particular standouts in the large ensemble cast come from Pip Lilly’s Willie (which is just fun to say), who keeps his dialog snappy and his attitude at full tilt. And, if anyone is working on a James Baldwin biographical piece, Lilly may be your man. Joey Ruggiero bravely throws himself into the confusion of Dale’s pain, envy, and neediness with the kind of commitment that brings his stilted dialog to life.

Despite my reservations, The View Upstairs is an entertaining evening thanks to adroit direction, a strong cast, and great production values. And for those who might feel squeamish about the tragic subject matter, the show really isn’t about the fire.

Celebration Theatre    September 22 – October 29, 2017






Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.