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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Who Doesn't Want to be a Gay Icon?

There are various ways to write a dissertation for a Masters in Liberal Arts at Johns Hopkins University. But Sarah Lynn Taylor chose to pen a musical, and drawing on her vocal gifts, proceeded to perform in I Want To Be A Gay Icon.

Taylor led the audience through a journey that was part autobiographical and part gay history with songs that had been associated with several gay icons over the years. Using narration and song she argues that being a gay icon takes more than being a star performer but one also needs to be an activist, which she unabashedly claims that she is.

In its second year, Iron Crow Theatre, a Baltimore company that has produced several unconventional shows and focuses on Queer/LGBT issues, produced Taylor’s I Want To Be A Gay Icon in cooperation with Johns Hopkins University.

The show was limited to three days (November 10-12) at the Baltimore Theatre Project and did not charge admission because purchasing the rights to the songs would have been prohibitive if it ran as a for-profit production. Instead, the audience was requested to donate funds to cover expenses.

Sarah Lynn Taylor is no stranger to Iron Crow having appeared in Durang’s Shorts and Hedwick and the Angry Inch. Director of Icon Joseph Ritsch is also a member of the Iron Crow company and has performed in Hedwick, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls and will appear in 2012 production of The Soldier Dreams—next on tap for Iron Crow.

Taylor, a magna cum laude graduate of Towson University, has significant local theatre, TV and radio experience. Her ease in front of an audience was quite evident as she commanded the stage, which she shared with three fine back-up singers and accessories to lighter moments during the show—the Iconettes (Ines Nassara, Amanda Rife and Katie O’Solomon).

In addition, four excellent on-stage musicians—The Gay Icon Band (Sam Palmer, Paul Huesman, Corey Zook and musical director/guitarist Nick Jewett)—effectively complimented Taylor’s vocals.

The concept of integrating music, biography and history was an ambitious undertaking. Generally there was a good flow but at times it seemed random and out of sequence. Landmarks in gay history, such as the Stonewall uprising, the AIDS epidemic, the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association and Harvey Milk’s passion were highlighted, with the songs representing gay icons of the era added a nostalgic connection to the events.

During the Stonewall segment, instead of singing “Cabaret”—a song from the musical that had been playing on Broadway at the time—I thought Judy Garland’s “Get Happy,” which Taylor did sing a bit later, should have performed at that point since Garland had died a few days before the Stonewall events. To her credit, Taylor noted the Stonewall patrons were already mourning over Garland’s death that may have shortened the fuse when the police raided.

The music and its icons were adored by the gay and lesbian community, but how many of them were activists for the cause? From Taylor’s perspective, most. She singled out Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge as those superstar entertainers beloved by the gay and lesbian community but also active in LGBT rights—to whom Taylor aspired.

Taylor noted that Madonna should be included among those icons but she couldn’t afford to acquire the licensing for her music, and she stated Lady Gaga, whom she greatly admires, didn’t receive her request.

Other gay icons who may not fit Taylor’s definition completely or because of a lack of time were not mentioned. Among them were Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, Cyndi Lauper, and Donna Summer before she went anti-gay Christian on us. And you can add comediennes Kate Clinton, Margaret Cho, Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin to the list.

Unquestionably, Sarah Lynn Taylor’s musical performance was the show’s strength. Although her narrative about history, her upbringing, and family was passionate, earnest and very well-delivered, the audience was eagerly waiting for the next number. In an important segment Taylor became serious when she reminded the audience that HIV/AIDS was prevalent in Baltimore and urged people to get tested and engage in safe sex practices.

Taylor showcased her versatility in performing both ballads and high tempo songs with flair and emotion. “Constant Craving,” “Cabaret,” “If I Could Turn Back Time” and “I’m The Only One” were delivered especially well. Her rendition of “The Way We Were” was somewhat disappointing, and with “New York, New York,” Taylor took some liberties with the lyrics.

Overall, this was an enjoyable production and was well received by the audience. Sarah Lynn Taylor displayed outstanding vocal skills, energy and enthusiasm and a good sense of LGBT history which can never be understated.

Can Taylor be an actual gay icon? She has the potential, and at the very least, I’m sure she nailed her dissertation.

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