Read her lips!
John Epperson marks 25 years of Lypsinka
by Robert Sokol
"More than a drag queen, not as brainy as a performance artist, but more than merely an entertainer." That's the description, delivered in a soft-spoken, measured drawl, John Epperson offers for his alter ego of the last quarter-century, that fast-talking, high-fashion, low-comedy dame known as Lypsinka.
"Lypsinka was born out of a desire to be in show business," says the Hazlehurst, Mississippi native, "but I was terrified of auditioning. I wasn't a triple threat. I couldn't sing, dance and act the way it was expected for a Broadway show. When I moved to New York in the late 70s, I discovered the East Village, where there were all these revival houses, museums and clubs that would show old movies, which I love." Club 57 was managed by a then-unknown Ann Magnuson, and a colleague from Epperson's day job as a rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theatre introduced them. Though skeptical, Magnuson gave him a slot in their next performance night. "It was my first public lip-syncing appearance." Sort of.
In a case of art imitating life imitating art, the daughters of the Epperson clan had long ago embraced the art of mimicry. "My father had a record called For Men Only with Jayne Mansfield on the cover, on all fours and wearing a black cat-suit. She didn't actually sing on the record. It was a bunch of covers by artists you'd never heard of, like Bitsy Gay singing 'Pepper Hot Baby' and 'Whatever Lola Wants.' And my sisters Sue and Kay would lip-sync to these songs. I remember that I was just four years old and mimicking my sisters lip-syncing the singers at a family reunion. The whole family applauded me for behaving like a woman, so I was totally reinforced as a very young kid. But then I would come home from seeing Gypsy pretending I was Natalie Wood, and I would be spanked. So there was this contradiction going on, and I realized that it really was forbidden for me to behave like a girl."
While accompanying an ABT tour in Europe, Epperson spent some free time in Paris. "There's a drag club that's still there called Michou. It's very Victor/Victoria. The waiter takes your drink order, and two minutes later, he's onstage doing Liza Minnelli or Zizi Jeanmaire. It was the best lip-syncing I'd ever seen. I had wanted to do some kind of drag performance for a while, but it needed a hook. A name that would tell the audience what to expect and that you had a sense of humor. There was a Richard Avedon exhibit that featured models with names like Dovima and Veruschka. I figured since I was so tall and skinny, perhaps I could pass myself off as a fashion model. So lip-syncing plus Veruschka became Lypsinka!"
Epperson drew inspiration from classic comediennes like Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, and "believe it or not, Warner Bros. cartoons, with their manic energy." He has an encyclopedic knowledge of film, and tapped the visuals of MGM musical performers like Kay Thompson and Dolores Gray. "She had this va-va-voom body and big face and over-the-top gestures.
"[My shows] were so primitive in the beginning. I'd go on stage and lip-sync a whole number. It never occurred to me that I could edit things." And edit he did. Early shows were put together with a cassette recorder and a steady finger poised on Pause. A now-classic routine involves an ever-tightening spiral of phone calls with rapid-fire bursts of dialogue from films like Butterfield 8 and Valley of the Dolls. "The conceit became that all of these voices were coming out of one person, and that Lypsinka could be, if not every man, certainly every diva."
No mommie, dearest
The show opening this week at the Empire Plush Room retains some audience favorites, but also breaks new ground. "This show is very different from the many shows I did at Josie's in San Francisco. We're billing it as 'John Epperson as Lypsinka as Joan Crawford.' The point is not to look like Crawford, which I don't, because she was drop-dead gorgeous, and I'm not. But I feel she's gotten short shrift by constantly being portrayed as that screaming monster with the wire hangers. I wanted to show her as a real person, as much as I could in the artificial form of theatre that I do."
Epperson appreciates the irony that Lypsinka, the character born to mask his fear, has opened the very doors he was afraid to pass through. He is a produced playwright, and has played numerous roles without benefit of his diva's distinctive hair and make-up. Asked if this new direction might lead to Lypsinka's retirement, Epperson considers it. "I've often said that I wouldn't do [her] if I didn't look flawless. There will come a day when I'm not as young as I am." Pause. "But that day hasn't arrived yet!"
The Passion of the Crawford plays the Empire Plush Room through April 22. Tickets ($42.50-$47.50): www.ticketweb.com or (866) 468-3399.