LYPSINKA: THE TRILOGY
Lypsinka is one of the most unique and gifted performers I’ve ever seen. She’s a drag queen, and where most drag queens from her generation (she’s in her 50s) would just turn on a boom box and lip-synch to “I will survive”, Lypsinka takes everything off the deep end - - she assembles whole evenings, lip-synching to pop songs, night club performances, and bits of dialogue from movies. I first saw her not long after I moved to New York, and instantly put her on my short list of the greatest of the great.
The Lyp has taken some time off. She hasn’t done her act in New York in almost 10 years. I was starting to worry that she had retired, and am thrilled that she staged this comeback. Cue The Lyp doing the line from *Sunset Blvd*: “I hate that word! It’s a return! A return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.”
The Lyp is too grand a personage to return to the stage in just one show - - she gave us three!
PART ONE: SHOW TRASH
Richard and I saw this on 11/17. The show features John Epperson (aka Lypsinka out of drag) doing a cabaret act, sitting at the piano, singing, playing the piano, telling stories. I saw him do this show at Joe’s Pub about ten years ago, loved it. He’s expanded it quite a lot, tarted it up a little, with generally good results.
He opened with “Take me to the world”, a poignant Sondheim song about longing for something more than what you have. It set the tone perfectly for his early-life tale of being a misfit in a small town, knowing there had to be something better out there. Richard and I both agreed that the childhood reminiscences part of the show went on a little long - - it’s not really what we’re after, as an audience. Though the home movie footage of him, somewhere around the age of six, losing a race to his big sister and consoling himself by putting on a dress, that was freakin’ historic!
Yes, the show could be pruned a little - - but a bigger issue was his pacing. This isn’t an issue with Lypsinka because she’s tied (chained, shackled!) to the pre-recorded audio track. But John Epperson, alone onstage with just a piano, he’s left to his own devices. I won’t say his delivery is lackadaisical - - let’s say it’s leisurely. This, I suppose, is to be expected. The boy is from Hazelhurst, Mississippi.
Some highlights: at one point he said, “Do you want to hear my Mia Farrow impersonation?” We all shouted yes, and started laughing already. He sat down, played the opening music from *Rosemary’s Baby*, and started singing the theme, “La la la la, la la…” With a completely blank expression and the breathy affect of La Farrow. Brought the house down. I’m available to do a re-creation (sans piano).
He spent his first years in New York as a rehearsal pianist at American Ballet Theatre and various other ballet companies. He sang the song “I’m the first girl” during this sequence - - it’s a hilarious song introduced by Nancy Walker in the show *Look Ma, I’m Dancin’*. She plays a dancer who’s stuck in the corps de ballet, never gets a leading role. But she admits she’s not really that great in this priceless lyric: “And as for Alexandra Danilova / I know I’ll never make a schlemiel of her.”
Epperson is a wonderful pianist, and you know, there’s a real art to singing and playing the piano at the same time. It’s not as easy as you think. His singing - - let’s say his singing is full of character. His vibrato is a little Merman-esque, which I guess didn’t do HER any harm. He certainly doesn’t seem bothered by it. He held some of those final notes for a long time, and I applaud him for it.
Speaking of The Merm, he referenced the Ethel Merman disco album at one point, and then went off on a tangent wondering why Katharine Hepburn never did a disco album. He gave us a taste of what that might have been like - - imagine Kate intoning these lyrics: “Everybody was kung fu fighting / Those kicks were fast as lightning / In fact, it was a little bit frightening.” Again, I’m available to do a re-creation. His encore was Hepburn coming out, to a thumping backbeat, and doing a nice big chunk of “Rapper’s delight.” Brought the house down.
PART THREE: THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD
I’m doing Part Three in the middle because Part Two is going to be much more involved. Richard and I saw *The Passion of the Crawford* on 1/2, after we saw *Lypsinka: The Boxed Set* (aka Part Two). *The Passion of the Crawford* is a staging of Joan Crawford’s 1973 interview at Town Hall. It was touching, because I know Crawford is Epperson’s #1 favorite movie star, and he was eager to do a whole show devoted to her. I know this because he told me on our one date, I think it was New Year’s Day 2005. That’s another story. The show is only worth seeing for people who are either crazy for Lypsinka or crazy for Crawford.
PART TWO: LYPSINKA – THE BOXED SET
Richard and I saw this with our friends John and David on 1/2, the same night we saw *The Passion of the Crawford*. This is the show that presents Lypsinka in her most authentic form. The opening of the show made me think of Renata Tebaldi, of all people. We heard a big Hollywood/Vegas orchestral wind-up. The curtain went up, revealing another curtain. That curtain went up, revealing another curtain, that curtain went up, revealing Lypsinka in shadow behind a gauzy curtain. “Ladies and gentlemen, the only and only…Lypsinka!” The curtains parted, and there she was in all her glory. The audience went mental. Screaming, applauding, weeping, wetting itself. This was the Tebaldi element - - I wonder if the Tebaldi audience took so much pleasure in their diva adulation, or if they were more serious about it. It certainly was a lot of fun for us.
I’d seen The Lyp as The Lyp two or three times before, but not this particular show. Her shows all have the same format, and often have overlapping material, but they all have fresh gems. I was most excited by a longish sequence in the middle of the show, where she did the monologue that leads into “Rose’s Turn” from *Gypsy*. That was genuinely dramatic, in a way that I hadn’t seen in a Lyp show before. Richard almost jumped out of his seat when The Lyp started doing Frances Faye, a blue night club entertainer from the 50s and 60s who he loves. And she went on and on, the Frances Faye sequence went on for like ten minutes! And was a scream, naturally.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes a Lypsinka show so genius, and have determined that there are four elements of genius: performance, assembly, the original material, and production. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Shreves, would plotz if she knew I was using a thesis statement after all these years.
The Lypsinka performance is nothing short of stunning. The lip-synching is, of course, central, and she does it better than anyone. The only person who is as good is Judy Garland (who The Lyp sees as the best lip-syncher of all time). I don’t know what those people in Hollywood are doing with their time, but they need to fly in The Lyp whenever they do a musical, to coach the actors on the finer points of lip-synching. Meryl Streep could learn a thing or two from this lady. But lip-synching is only part of the story. She’s a darling dancer. She has absolute command of the stage and her audience. And her use of gesture is hilarious, it captures all the empty grandezza of show biz. Makes me think of a great Oscar Levant quote: “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”
By “assembly”, I mean the script that she writes for her shows. She takes bits of dialogue from movies, pop songs, old night club routines, and who knows what else and pieces it together in an astonishing way. She knows how to pace a show, when to drop the excitement a little, when to ramp it back up. She knows that the show could only be 70 minutes long, which is a skill that others could apply to their own work. And the artistry of how she pieces these things together, it boggles the mind. The phone sequence is a high point of every Lypsinka show. Here’s how it works: she’s just finished a musical number and you hear a phone ring, a very 1950s phone. Three spotlights, side by side, come up on the curtain. She walks into the spotlight on the left, mimes picking up the phone, and says something. Another ring, and she walks over the spotlight on the right, says something else. Another ring, and she goes to the middle. And on and on. Unbelievably hilarious. In this performance, the spotlight on the left was always Joan Crawford, the middle was either Bette Davis or some guy doing Bette Davis, and the one on the right was Elizabeth Taylor. I was on tenterhooks waiting for her to go over to the Liz spotlight and say, “I was the slut of all time!” I laughed my head off when she did.
I realized at this performance that part of the credit needs to go to the original performers - - to Frances Faye, Joan Crawford, Shirley Bassey, Fay McKay, Cyd Charisse, Bette Davis, Lena Horne, Ethel Merman, Elizabeth Taylor, and who knows who else was in there. I don’t really know Mimi Hines, but I feel like she has to be in there somewhere. All of these ladies are unique and knew how to deliver the goods, and Lypsinka knows how deliver THEIR goods. Your cooking will always be better when you use the best ingredients, and The Lyp is shopping at the Zabar’s of the entertainment world. She is not going to Gristede’s.
And finally, the production. The Lyp has worked with director Kevin Malony for years, and I would be curious to know what their process is. Does she show up with the show complete, and he stages it - - or do they work it out together? There is no real set in a Lypsinka show, it’s just curtains layered upon curtains. Her costumes are divine - - in this show she had a burgundy taffeta halter leotard as her base, to which she added a swingy skirt of the same fabric, a long chartreuse fringed skirt cut up to there (and boy, did she work that fringe), and in the Shirley Bassey “This is my life” number, a big white cape, naturally bordered with feathers. I suppose I should say a word about the hair and makeup, they’re an essential part of the Lypsinka performance. The most impressive part of the production was the lighting, especially the follow spot. The follow spot is a partner to Lypsinka - - a few times she did a number with a few POW! POW! moments in her hands, and the spotlight got suddenly bigger/smaller, bigger/smaller in those moments. Theatrical genius, and hard work!
We saw the last *Boxed Set* performance of the run, and Lypsinka made a little curtain speech. She asked if we would come see a show like that again next year, and we all screamed YES. YES!