FringeNYC Roundup #2

Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching

By New York City
John Epperson in Lypsinka!  As I Lay Lip-Synching(Photo © TWEED)
John Epperson in Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching
(Photo © TWEED)
John Epperson is a brilliant entertainer. For those who don't recognize the name, Epperson is who Lypsinka is when she removes Louis Braun's carefully applied makeup, Mitch Ely's lethal-flip wig, and the shrewdly mix-and-match costumes that Bryant Hoven contrives. Yes, there was an indisputable spark of genius in Epperson's initial impulse to take lip-synchronization, which for years was no more than an amusing music hall stunt, and see where he could go with it.

He took it surprisingly far -- straight into the realm of art form -- when it occurred to him that he could splice excerpts from old movies, original cast albums, and television and radio soundtracks into 60-minute-plus scenarios that make caustic observations about the plight of women in contemporary (or almost contemporary) society. Epperson tapped into stage gold the instant he realized that he could remain uninterruptedly hilarious as the whirlwind Lypsinka while making scathing commentary about the anguish of women sinking into depression from the efforts of keeping up a contented façade. Presto change-o! Epperson became the indefatigable night club performer Lypsinka, who's modeled after the late musical comedy leading lady Dolores Gray and often sounds exactly like her, thanks to some of those cannily-culled original cast cuts. Epperson's steel-plated alter ego represents Everywoman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as a result of trying constantly to be a-twirl with grace and good cheer.

In Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching, Epperson's lady with the look of what he has called "frozen concrete" is back. Arriving in a straitjacket after an apparent suicide attempt, she hurls the unflattering wrap to the wings and, revealed in tight bodice and fringed skirt, launches into a figurative and metaphorical song and dance. She smiles as only she can through a series of night club turns that the late, great Kay Thompson would have been proud to have staged, although it's astute Kevin Malony who actually has done so.

Longtime Epperson followers will be glad to hear that the hour-long show is twice interrupted by the sort of anxiety-provoking telephone calls that the harried but undaunted Lypsinka always manages to answer with at least superficial sangfroid. (Every once in a while, when Bernard Hermann-like instrumental shrieks split the air, her expression does pale.) Cutting into sequences that include a longish number about stars on the summer stock circuit, the phone calls feature various Bette Davis exclamations; there's also plenty from Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and, I think, as Catherine Holly in Suddenly Last Summer. Perhaps most laugh-out-loud funny of all are the series of calls that prompt Lypsinka to let fly with Faye Dunaway's frantic sister-daughter dialogue from Chinatown.

A large part of any Lypsinka personal appearance is the fun of identifying the sound bites that Epperson has rounded up -- although, in Lypsinka's case, they're not so much sound bites as sound chomps. Tallulah Bankhead is heard growling low, and there are also silvery I Had a Ball blasts from Karen Morrow, who unfortunately reached Broadway just about a decade after the kind of people who wrote shows for the kind of performer Morrow is had almost entirely stopped writing those shows. Epperson also gets around to an in-joke of a sort that may be new in his repertoire: For one side-splitting minute he intercuts Judy Holliday singing the words "I'm going back" with hunks of Jennifer Holliday's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." That's two J-Ho's for the price of one.

Not everything on the expertly edited track is instantly familiar. For example, there are a number of tips on feminine beauty and deportment that have apparently been lifted from the speeches of some unidentifiable, self-impressed authority. (Or is it more than one?) A comment about dressing well for the theater -- a notion that might come as big news to many contemporary ticket buyers -- ends with the observation that, "Feeling more beautiful, you're apt to find the play better." Cumulatively, the clips give the impression that Epperson is a compulsive listener, although he has reported that unsolicited but welcome contributions sometimes arrive in the mail. And, he has said, there used to be a supplier in Michigan.

John Epperson in Lypsinka!  As I Lay Lip-Synching(Photo © TWEED)
John Epperson in Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching
(Photo © TWEED)
As usual in such an opus, Epperson's flawless lip-synching (heavy breathing included) is immaculate. So is Malony's direction, which keeps Lypsinka spinning and raising her undulating, Maya Plisetskaya-like arms to the sky. (Epperson knows all about port de bras; for some years he was an American Ballet Theatre rehearsal pianist.) Everything is rehearsed to a fare-thee-well. When Lypsinka reaches behind a curtain for a fan or an oversized gin bottle with a straw in it, she's instantly handed the evocative prop. When she steps from one spotlight to the next to pick up an imaginary telephone, lighting and set designer Mark T. Simpson's spots bump up and down on exactly the right beats. Bryant Hoven's shades-of-plum costumes can be removed and rearranged in seconds. They're so cleverly constructed that they sometimes take on a life of their own; the bouncy, flouncy skirts certainly do.

As a consequence, nothing in Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching ever slips below Epperson's established best. On the other hand, little of the nonstop turn aims for a new entertainment plateau -- unless the title, with its literary curtsy to William Faulkner, is taken into account. Epperson may very well be hinting that Lypsinka's act is a variant of Faulkner's celebrated stream-of-consciousness device. (Don't forget that both Epperson and Faulkner are Mississippi sons.) Otherwise, there is more reassurance than surprise to what Lypsinka is doing here. Epperson's implications about women's challenges are well taken and his sidelong view of show-biz clichés is amusing, but none of this is new.

Maybe Epperson is marking time while continuing to wait for his audience to catch up with him. After all, although his shows can be enjoyed simply as frivolous exercises, there's much more going on in them. Here is a man using material written for women (but rarely by women) to examine how society both idolizes and denigrates women. Epperson has noticed that nightclub acts, for example, frequently present women as larger than life; the hollow idealization that results allows the denial of problems faced by women in their usual, life-sized incarnations. In some ways Epperson is mocking his audience -- typically populated by more men than women -- even while delighting it. This is camp, he notes, and camp may do as much damage as good.

Epperson may not intend to move on until he's satisfied that everyone watching him understands what he understands. While he cools his heels, he remains a tireless treat, kicking up Lypsinka's stiletto heels.

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