Saturday, June 29, 2019

Colin Cunliffe presents It’s a Gay Gay World

Can I Be Fierce celebrates Pride Month

© Austin Ruffer
Colin Cunliffe puts the Gay in Pride
by Stephen Mosher

I was 17 the first time I went into a gay bar. I paced the street outside for what seemed forever before getting the nerve up to go in, and once inside, I was terrified. That terror lasted for years. Once I was in college I tried to hide who I was, afraid of being judged, afraid of being rejected, afraid of being hurt. Even when, a few years later, I found a man who helped me inch my way into the light, I was afraid. It was the early 80s. We had to behave a certain way in public. We couldn’t hold hands at the movies or in restaurants, we would have to surreptitiously brush up against each other. We couldn’t kiss in public or say 'I love you'. We were out but in the shadows. 

I remember going into my first adult bookstore. I paced the street outside for what seemed forever, terrified I would be seen going in, terrified I would see someone I knew there, even though they would be doing the same thing I was doing. I was living in the gay neighborhood of Dallas and, still, I was terrified every time I walked into a gay bar, every time I walked out of a gay bar, and almost every minute that I was inside that gay bar.

It took time before I was able to let go of the terror and live in the light.

But it’s a new mutherf*cking day, baby.

Gay people of 2019 are still discriminated against but they will not be kept in the shadows. Since 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots, the month of June has been hailed as Gay Pride and all around the world people have pride celebrations. They do this to protest, to remember, to celebrate. The people who participate in Pride are many and they go by many labels. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Nonbinary, Gender Fluid, the list goes on. There is a group of people who celebrate called Allies - they are the people who celebrate and support, even though they themselves are not part of the queer community. There are, in short, many people who participate in Gay Pride.

And a lot of them were present recently when the nightclub at Pangea hosted Colin Cunliffe presents It’s a Gay Gay World.

If you had told terrified 17-year-old me that 38 years later I would be married to a man whose hand I would hold in public, and that there would be a nightclub show where I would watch a man with a lumberjack beard and eyeliner wearing a leather jockstrap, harness and cap singing to a room packed with people about being queer, I would have called you a liar. But I didn’t know, then, that activism actually works and that my people would not only be living in the light, we would BE the light. And it feels good in the light, which is exactly where Colin Cunliffe and company belong.

A veteran of six Broadway shows, Cunliffe entered the theatre at Pangea wearing a black onesie with a sequined heart on the front, harlequin cutouts on the sides and a crotch that rode so high that there was every chance that, at any moment, the audience would be knowing Colin more than they had anticipated. Over the onesie, he wore a kind of ringmaster/bandleader jacket in bright red with gold trim, and on top of his head he wore a top hat with a feather longer than King Kong’s arm. His face was made up in high glamor and sported blue mirror steampunk sunglasses. It was fabulous and uncomfortable at the same time. Fabulous because of sheer fabulosity and uncomfortable because I know I would never have the bravery to wear so audacious an outfit myself. With a metaphysical embrace of his willing audience, Cunliffe launched into what I can only describe as an LSD inspired version of 'Strawberry Fields', complete with a story about his Gay Uncle Jack - this is no Broadway chorus boy; Cunliffe is a raconteur, a poet, a showman, an activist, and an inspirator. He declared this night the night of Gay Pride when he and his family will gather to 'Get as gay as we possibly can', pausing to make the audience 'Clap as gay as you can' and teaching all how to properly say 'YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!' Setting my discomfort to one side, I settled in for the ride.

Cunliffe’s guests were all members of the New York theatre community, each of them beautiful and accomplished, some less flashy than others, some more trashy than the others; and each of them brought to the tiny cabaret stage a passion for life and love and living in the light.

© Austin Ruffer
Daniel Reichard’s take on a gay Mr. Rogers was charming and funny, balancing naughtiness and bawdiness with a message about loving your neighbor and yourself, 'There’s no person just like you', and wrapping up his appearance with a mash-up of ‘It’s You I Like’ and ‘It’s Such a Good Feeling’, including a sing-along, which should cast a light on the average age of the audience. The choice to bring the Jersey Boys alum up first was a smart one because once the life-threateningly handsome charmer had finished his number, the audience truly did feel at home in this Beautiful Gayborhood.

© Austin Ruffer
Jonathan Ritter took the place of the show’s maestro extraordinaire, Lance Horne, to present his own composition after sharing a personal story about growing up and struggling to reconcile Gay with God, a journey to which many can relate. With a lovely, mellifluous voice, Ritter brought forth that song you listened to in high school that always broke open your heart - it was sublime.
© Austin Ruffer

Emma Sofia Caymares simply flew up on the stage the moment her name was called, bedecked in a beaded brassiere, rhinestone studded belt and a take no prisoners lust for life. 'I decided to be subtle today cause that’s what I do!' and she was subtle enough to sneak a horn player into her smashing mash up of 'Born This Way' and 'Express Yourself'. For Pride. Madonna and Gaga. Um. Yes, please. When it was time for the Fosse/Verdon veteran to turn the stage over to the next performer, a grinning Cunliffe took hold of the mic and cried out 'She’s stupid!' Duh, he meant stupid with talent.

© Austin Ruffer
My heart skipped a beat when the dreamy star of Broadway’s Pippin took over at the keyboards to play his self-penned 'Backrooms'. Before starting the song, though, Erik Altemus dedicated the performance to the victims of PULSE almost three years later to the day, offering that 'without community, we really don’t have anything.' I loved that, in a celebration of being gay in your own personal way, Mr. Altemus appeared in modest dress, lit sage and brought us all into the deepest place of our hearts with a singing voice reminiscent of our own voice in that place where we are at our most introspective and vulnerable. How nice to get to go to that place, without actually having to go there.

© Austin Ruffer

Andrew Fitch took some time off of Waitress to open a vein for an appreciative crowd by singing a lovely little ballad called 'Brave', written by that girl who wrote Waitress. In Fitch’s hands, the Sarah Bareilles anthem became a lovely lullaby of hope and dreams, and where he went with his heartfelt performance, the audience was sure to go.

© Austin Ruffer

The entire room at Pangea had their hands in the air, cheering and mouthing the words to 'Colors of the Wind' as Sapphire Hart delivered the lyrics that have a different meaning as an adult than they did as a child, as a reply 'to everyone who’s ever told you you are not okay being who you are.' It was like being at a Big Gay Tent Revival, and if they had passed a plate, I would have put money in it, that’s how good it was.

© Austin Ruffer
A new trio of singers made their debut on this night and, with it, 3rd Vers made a room full of people happy, sending them home fans of their tight harmonies, entertaining girl-group-ography and powerful vocals. This self-proclaimed 'little faggot brotherhood' declares that they are 'three queer loving, sex-positive, gay men', a statement backed up by their leather wear, their camp fierceness, and their unapologetic mission statement to stay absolutely true to who they are. There were no cheers for 3rd Vers when they finished singing ‘Hang With Me'. There were screams.

© Austin Ruffer
Returning to the stage for another number, Cunliffe shared the story of his Red Ringmaster jacket, a gift from the famous Richard Simmons, who met Colin one night after Pippin when, in a moment of boldness, Cunliffe asked for Simmon’s jacket and the exercise guru told him 'Give me your address and I will send you a coat you will never forget.' The coat arrived with a note reading 'Never make a promise you can’t keep.' And having told this story, Cunliffe changed, right before our very eyes (with a little coverage from some friends) into a leather jockstrap, a harness and cap, before mashing up Tori Amos’ 'Leather' and Bette Midler’s 'Knight in Black Leather'. Cunliffe brings it all center stage and then leaves it there. We don’t need our imaginations when he is around because the rock star voiced Cunliffe has nothing to hide. It’s all on his sleeve -- if he had a sleeve to put it on. 'It’s about community,' says Cunliffe, 'We are all family.'

© Austin Ruffer
The next member of the family to hit the stage was the voice-like-a-trumpet, sequin sheathed Jack Bartholet, whose natural way with a crowd brought us all into the past with the question 'what does the gay world mean to you?' before telling us his answer with the fascinating 1920 tune 'The Lavender Song'. It was a thrilling performance worthy of Piaf, and it made me anxious to check out his show Lady With a Song at Pangea on June 27th.

Time to wrap it up, so Cunliffe, wishing to 'honor all of the ghosts who left us - it is important that we remember them' brings back Mr. Reichard for a lovely little ballad: the Disney classic 'Baby Mine', taking on a new meaning in this moment of introspection and retrospection.

However. It’s Gay Pride. It can’t end with a ballad. It has to end with a bang.

Enter Michael 'Bucky' Buchanan, probably the greatest male singer I have ever witnessed up close, capable of vocal pyrotechnics people only dream of being able to craft, for a sexy as f*ck mix of 'Make Me Feel'/'Kiss'/Sylvester. With a little request for the audience that 'we collectively participate' in the insane arrangement, this magical presence with a one-of-a-kind voice showed everyone how little it actually takes to live authentically. With audience and actors alike helping him along with our self-made percussions, he wailed the roof off of Pangea, bringing the entire room to its feet. It was a brilliant way to bring the entire cast onstage for an encore of 'Freedom' by the late, great George Michael, a perfect ending of a night celebrating being gay, being as gay as you can, being as gay as you want, being as in love with yourself and your life as you can be, and Just. Living. OUT. Loud.

Somewhere, in my past, in the long past, twinkie, terrified, 17-year-old Stephen felt a shiver run through him because there was, in some parallel universe, going to be a day when he felt, when he knew, it was okay to be gay. In fact, it would be more than okay. It would be Fabulous!

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