The Upstairs Lounge arson attack in New Orleans on June 24, 1973, in which 32 people died as a result of the fire or smoke inhalation, was the deadliest attack on a gay club until the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. To this date, no one has ever been charged with the crime. At the time it was suspected that a conflicted gay man who had been thrown out of the club earlier in the evening came back and started the fire in the second floor of a firetrap building in the French Quarter. He confessed to the crime but the police never filed charges and the man subsequently committed suicide more than a year later. Wayne Self’s Upstairs—A Musical Tragedy, a work of historical fantasy, is being presented by Owldolatrous Productions as part of the current Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Self’s heart is in the right place, not wanting this tragedy to be forgotten, but his playwriting and composing skills aren’t sharp enough to really make a lasting impression. He has created a group of hackneyed gay stereotypes and given them clichéd dialogue to expound. Some are based on real characters like hero bartender Buddy (Garrett Marshall) and MCC minister Mitch (Duncan Barrett Brown). Buddy’s alcoholic lover Adam (Nick Lasorelli) tricks with the uptight religious fanatic Agneau(Conor Sheehan) who may be the arsonist. Mitch is a bisexual who left his wife and children for Louis (Ra’Shawn Durell), a former hustler whose mother/pimp Inez (Kade’sha Barnard) misses that income. Mercy (Shane Kroll) is the drag performer who is headlining the MCC fundraiser at the bar and Reginald (Charles Romaine) is his assistant who develops a crush on Buddy. The plot meanders for 90 minutes under Brian Dale Brown’s lackluster direction. A lot of time is spent tying up loose ends after the fire and the play seems to have several endings, none of them very satisfactory. Self has created some lovely melodies, well played by Sean Alexander Bart on keyboards, but his lyrics really need work. There are some strong voices in the cast but unfortunately they aren’t given good material to work with. The songs sound more like speeches set to underscoring than music and lyrics. Kroll has the best number in “Testify.”