All it takes is a tremble of the lip, a vicious side-eye, a smirk. The magic of Lypsinka’s performances lies mainly in the comic timing; fortunately, she’s got it in spades. Lypsinka, the madcap drag persona of wiry Mississippi native John Epperson, returns to New York this month with a trilogy of shows running in repertory, each of which highlights her unique talents, mainly as a lip-sync drag artist but also, out of drag, as a singer and piano player.
Lypsinka! The Boxed Set provides a “greatest hits” of Lypsinka’s best bits of lip-synching, mainly drawn from obscure cabaret performances and classic (and not-so-classic films). Both spoken and sung portions figure as part of the ninety-minute mash-up that begins with the jazzy number “An Opening Song” sung by Gisele MacKenzie and also includes a drunken rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” sung by Fay McKay, Penny Fuller’s zany “One Hallowe’en” from the musical Applause, and a gloriously off-kilter description of the plot of Gypsy by Dolores Gray that leads into a few wacky lines from “Rose’s Turn” (Momma Rose is described as “kind of a meddler”).
The thrill of The Boxed Set is its mile-a-minute pacing, which leads us down the delirious rabbit-hole that is Lypsinka’s mind. A toe-tapping swing tune leads into a brilliantly lip-synched monologue leads into another snappy tune, all put across by Lypsinka with her signature flair. Despite her perfectly-coiffed style and generally classy demeanor, though, don’t think she doesn’t flirt with madness — particularly during her signature “telephone” segment. As Lypsinka juts out her thumb and pinky finger and scoops them through air, a classic movie quote is given the Lypsinka treatment — a hearty string of quotes in rapid-fire succession make up one of the evening’s funniest sections.
The wide scope of the Boxed Set is countered nicely by The Passion of the Crawford, which focuses solely on Joan Crawford’s outsized persona. The bulk of the evening is made up of an extended lip-sync to an onstage conversation between Crawford and Hollywood publicist John Springer (mouthed by Steve Cuiffo, or Scott Wittman at some performances) on the stage of New York’s Town Hall in 1973. Even those less familiar with Crawford’s work should find much to enjoy in Lypsinka’s wide-eyed embodiment of the legend’s late-career archness.
At choice moments, the interview is interrupted by flashbacks to Crawford’s days as a young mother (a time in her life that would be the basis of cult classic Mommie Dearest). Eventually, the composure of the interview portion gives way to a frenzied, almost nightmarish assemblage of expertly-spliced lines that twist Crawford’s words into a deliciously hellish fever dream. The section serves as a prime example of Lypsinka’s ability not only to highlight classic (and sometimes obscure) film and stage moments but also to pick them apart and make them uniquely her own.
John Epperson, rather than Lypsinka, takes center stage in Show Trash, an autobiographical cabaret that serves (especially in conjunction with Passion and The Boxed Set) as a kind of behind-the-scenes featurette, allowing Epperson a chance to reveal the man behind the lips, reflecting on his childhood, his career (both as a drag performer and as a rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre), and the contradictions inherent in the duality between Epperson and his drag persona.
The show features Epperson alone, mostly at the piano, with video design by Claire Moodey that provides a visual counterpart for his showbiz stories. One particularly telling clip foreshadows Lypsinka’s creation as a childhood Epperson dons a dress and gallivants around his family’s yard. Epperson isn’t likely to be remembered for his voice (his singing is above average in a raw, off-the-cuff way that’s well-suited to the intimate setting of the show), but he does know how to put across a song, including several with parody lyrics.
Unlike Lypsinka’s two spectacles, Show Trash allows for quieter, more introspective musical moments. The evening begins with a lovely rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Take Me to the World” from the television musical Evening Primrose and circles back, toward the end, to the defiant patter of “Everybody Says Don’t.” The evening’s highlight, though, comes during Epperson’s charm-filled take on “NYC” from Annie, which seamlessly leads into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory‘s “Pure Imagination,” accompanied by evocative images of New York City.
There are too many other highlights throughout The Boxed Set, The Passion of the Crawford, and Show Trash to write about each one, but suffice it to say that the three shows provide an excellent point of entry to the zany world of Lypsinka. By mastering the art of the lip-sync, Lypsinka has, in essence, mastered the art of living (triumphantly, even defiantly) through the words of others. This trilogy provides the thrilling opportunity for her to demonstrate that mastery but also, in Show Trash, to strip away the artifice of Lypsinka and allow John Epperson to take the stage.
Lypsinka! The Boxed Set, The Passion of the Crawford, and Show Trash are running in repertory at the Connelly Theatre as part of Lypsinka! The Trilogy. For a full schedule of performances, visit www.lyp3.com.