The world premiere of Upstairs, a new musical with book, music, and lyrics by Louisiana native Wayne Self that bills itself as “a musical tragedy” takes on the Herculean task of making its debut in “the city that forgot to care.” It does so with respect, perspective, and a level of humanity uncommon in the modern musical-theater scene. Weeks before the premiere, locals actively derided the concept of a musical treatment of the tragedy, filling the social networks with angry declamations of trading on the disaster and erroneously assuming that Upstairs would be a frivolous musical comedy. The show, which was presented in the limited confines of Cafe Istanbul in the area known as the Faubourg Marigny, quickly changed even the most hardened critics into ardent supporters of the production.
Over five years in the creation, Mr. Self, director Zachary McCallum, and musical director Stephanie Lynne Smith have crafted a respectful yet honestly human experience that refuses to shy away from the realities of the lives, loves, and failings of their subjects, brought to life by a cast most any production would be thrilled to employ. The ten characters in the show are a mixture of actual people and composites of the patrons, some of whom survive today.
An ensemble piece in the best sense, each performer is given the chance to shine. In the role of owner Buddy Rasmussen, Garrett Marshall is the show’s heart. Blessed with a widely expressive voice and impressive physical presence, Marshall gives an engaging, nuanced performance. As his highly intelligent lover, Adam, Nicholas Losorelli is a credible companion and foil to Marshall’s Buddy, bearing a fondness for Southern author Flannery O’Connor’s bleak prose that echoes the mores of the era. As the production’s sole female, Katrina McGraw’s Inez is a savvy amoral whore, mother and pimp for her two gay sons: the black Louis (Keith Beverly) — a flamboyant activist in love with a devoted Christian man — and his gifted white musician brother, Jean (Sean Alexander Bart) — who shares their mother’s amoral attitudes.
The dramatic impetus for Upstairs is the character of Agneau (pronounced Ahn-yoh, a nod to the character’s Creole French heritage), a damaged victim of the excesses of the gay ghetto and his strict fundamentalist upbringing. Portrayed by Alexander Jon, Agneau is a pernicious lost lamb uncomfortable in his own skin and mentally unstable. He is constantly haunted by the presence of Uncle, played with assured fervor by Brian Brown. Invisible to the other characters, Brown’s Uncle is not only Agneau’s frighteningly shameful voice of self-loathing, but a representation that happily slits itself on the razor’s edge between outright hatred and dogmatic entreaty. Despite swinging Bible verses like a cudgel, there is an undercurrent of caring and desperation. Uncle wants a little too much to keep Agneau from falling into the pits of Hell for his sinful attractions.
Even with its many plusses, Upstairs is definitely a work-in-progress. Many of the problems with the show are directly attributed to the limitations of Cafe Instanbul, a modular multipurpose concert stage with sparse lighting better suited to showcasing musicians than musicals. Despite the powerful voices of the cast, diction and clarity are somewhat lacking. Transitions between the various scenes want to be underscored, and timing in the book scenes are a little slow — though I suspect this issue was due mostly to the lighting limitations. The actors perform their numbers beautifully, but could benefit from a quick refresher in the vocal styles of the 1970s and could use some work re-creating the distinctive accents of the city. But these are nitpicking issues that underscore the value of the production as a whole, and are wholly fixable.
With more work and better venues, “Upstairs” has the potential to become a major musical drama. It has already taken the notoriously fickle audiences of New Orleans by surprise and they have embraced the show as their own. After experiencing the production on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, this force of nature achieves more than great heights of musical drama. Upstairs brings closure to a city that has suffered this open wound for too long, and demonstrates the transformational power of live theater.