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Celebration's 'The View UpStairs': Before the gay bar burned, there was music, friendship and family

Before last year’s shooting in Orlando, Fla., left 49 dead, the biggest mass killing of LGBTQ people in America occurred in 1973 when a New Orleans bar, the UpStairs Lounge, was set aflame. Thirty-two people died.

Max Vernon — a young songwriter, performer and creator of musicals — happened upon that largely forgotten history and was developing the musical “The View UpStairs” when Orlando returned the New Orleans incident to the news.

The show opened off-Broadway in February. Now L.A.’s LGBTQ-focused Celebration company has pulled together its own staging at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood.

Though the fateful flames are ignited late in the show, the bulk of the musical is devoted to bringing the UpStairs Lounge gloriously back to life. We attend a church service, view a drag show, listen to singalongs at the piano and get caught in a police raid. The show is a conversation across four decades: one side just beginning, four years after Stonewall, to emerge from the shadows of fear, the other out and proud on every social-media app under the sun.

As viewers take their seats, the lounge is dark and haunted-looking, but when a spectral piano player — in wide lapels and perm — materializes at the keyboard and begins to sing, other ghosts join him. The lights brighten, sharpening the room’s details: red, flocked wallpaper; Mardi Gras beads strung in the chandeliers; and above the bar a giant cutout of Burt Reynolds’ Cosmopolitan centerfold (set design by Alex Calle).

Into this happy bustle walks a present-day fashion-design aspirant who’s looking for a space to turn into an atelier. He takes a couple of snorts of cocaine, making the 1973 patrons visible to him and he to them.

Each character gets a song — a moment to tell his or her story. The insistent melodies sound like today’s iTunes charts overlaid with ’70s flavors: David Bowie, guitar rock and more. The music makes you want to hear more from Vernon, a Santa Monica-raised, Brooklyn-based 29-year-old — and it’s certain that we will; he’s also part of the team behind the immersive “KPOP” now off-Broadway.

The present-day time-tripper is portrayed by Matthew Hancock in a whirlwind of fabulousness. His spiritual predecessor among the ’70s crowd is a corner-of-the-bar storyteller portrayed by Pip Lilly with more effervescence than a shaken bottle of Champagne. Also among the bar’s regulars are Darren Bluestone, soulful and sexy, as a small-town kid who’s been on the run since age 14 and Jake Anthony, the piano player, as a guy whose thwarted dreams are quelled only when he slips away from his wife and kids to perform at the bar.

Energy runs high in this staging by Michael A. Shepperd, whose work on “The Boy From Oz” propelled its hit run with Celebration last year.

Michael Mullen’s costumes are a kick for anyone who remembers the age of Qiana, flared ankles and leisure suits. Cate Caplin’s choreography dials up the adrenaline.

Acoustics are a problem, though. The band — Anthony joined by instrumentalists on guitar, bass and drums — overwhelms the tiny theater and drowns the lyrics. This disrupts the storytelling since Vernon conveys so much information in his 15 songs. To fully appreciate the show you’ll want to listen ahead to the cast album of the New York production.

As for the voices: a handful are stellar, the rest serviceable.

By the end of his cocaine encounter, the present-day figure, a prime example of social-media self-centeredness, has learned from his forebears about the value of face-to-face connection and community-building.

“I chose a family of my own / who shared my brand new point of view,” the piano player sings. “Now you’re all gathered ’round / in this kingdom we’ve found.” It is, he concludes, “some kind of paradise.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The View UpStairs’

Where: The Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 12

Tickets: $24-$45

Info: (323) 957-1884, www.celebrationtheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

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daryl.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @darylhmiller

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UPDATES:

10:30 p.m. Nov. 2: This article was updated to reflect an extension of the run.

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