Wayne Self’s musical Upstairs, which recently premiered locally at Cafe Istanbul, takes on the difficult task of telling stories about the 1973 fire at the Up Stairs Lounge in the French Quarter. An arson fire killed 32 people trapped at the second-floor gay bar that was destroyed in the city’s single deadliest fire. The play sticks close to the facts, but it’s a work of fiction that creates an arsonist (albeit one similar to a suspect in the case, although no one was arrested or charged with a crime). Upstairs also imagines the lives of some of the victims, whose real names are used in some cases. Telling those stories without letting the deaths of 32 people overshadow the action is not easy. Starting from before the tragedy and following a trajectory through the violence of the arson, the grief and the possiblity of redemption is a lot of ground to cover. Self is ambitious in the breadth of issues he raises. He succeeds in some places and falls short in others.
The musical has two settings: the Up Stairs Lounge in the hours before the fire, and a year after the fire in the apartment of the arsonist. Edward Cox’s set and Alison Parker and Kate Adair’s costumes convincingly evoke the time and place. The central characters are Buddy (Garrett Marshall), the bartender who saves many patrons by leading them to a back exit when the fire erupts, Agneau (Alxander Jon), who sets the fire after he is kicked out of the bar and Adam (Nicholas Losorelli), who dates Buddy and has an awkward encounter with Agneau. The Buddy and Agneau share a haunting duet before Buddy realizes Agneau set the fire.
The drama alternates scenes, and the fire is introduced early, which complicates the emotional arc of the play as action jumps back and forth from the relatively lighthearted events in the bar to the aftermath of a horrible tragedy. The personal issues of negotiating relationships and handling conflicts arising from internalized homophobia are important, but they often pale in between scenes of grief and recrimination over almost all these characters’ deaths. The actual lounge was the frequent site for drag queen shows, but the upbeat, showbizzy song “Testify,” sung by drag queen Marcy (Jeffery Roberson) is too silly to follow, as it did, an angry confrontation with the arsonist.
The singing in the show is good — in the opening ensemble piece “Sanctuary” and in individual numbers. Marshall is strong as the charismatic and determined Buddy. Aside from “Testify,” the songs hit appropriate notes. A few characters only got substantial individual attention while singing solos, particularly Mitch (Patrick Dillon Curry), and though his song was well-done, there was too brief a gloss on his relationship with Louis (Keith Beverly). Uncle (Brian Brown) haunts Agneau with his unrelenting anti-gay rants, but without seeing any other side to the relationship, it’s hard to see why Agneau puts so much stock in his disapproval.
Debuting the work on the 40th anniversary of the fire heightened the attention to the actual tragedy. The cast got a standing ovation on the night I saw it, and an additional performance was added. Some work could help smooth out the arc of the story and likely would help the musical appeal to audiences elsewhere.