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Lypsinka Returns…for a Final Bow?

John Epperson plans to fundamentally transform the famed drag diva, so fans might want to book tickets while they still can.

Lypsinka prepares for a three-show repertory at the Connelly Theater.
(© Peter Palladino)

John Epperson fondly remembers the Thanksgiving he spent with composer Mary Rodgers Guettel and family at her home on the Upper West Side. A gifted pianist, Epperson took to the ivories that night and played selections from Do I Hear a Waltz?, the 1952 musical Rodgers Guettel's father (Richard Rodgers) cowrote with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. As Epperson opened his mouth to sing, the whole Rodgers-Guettel clan joined in. "This is the reason I moved to New York," he said.

More specifically, Epperson moved to New York to be a working actor. By all measures, he's succeeded, but not as he might have anticipated. "When I got here I was so scared and underprepared," he recalled about relocating from small-town Mississippi to the big city in 1978. "I couldn't go to an audition. I was too frightened...so I created Lypsinka."

Lypsinka is Epperson's drag persona, an internationally acclaimed performer and lip-sync artist. Epperson first unveiled Lypsinka in 1982 at the East Village's famed Pyramid Club (former stomping ground of RuPaul and Lady Bunny). Since then, Lypsinka has been one of the gold standards of the world of drag performance, with popular shows in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

Apropos of his aforementioned shyness, Epperson never speaks in a Lypsinka show, but instead uses a highly edited audio track to tell a story, mouthing along to the words of several different speakers like a fabulous lady with multiple personality disorder. Here's an example from Epperson's 1993 appearance on The Joan Rivers Show:

Over the last three decades, Lypsinka has garnered a loyal fan base with these committed and highly idiosyncratic performances. Lately, however, her appearances in the Big Apple been few and far between. After nearly a decade's absence from the New York stage, Lypsinka is making a big return with Lypsinka! The Trilogy at the Connelly Theater.

John Epperson created Lypsinka in 1982. His legs haven't changed one bit since.
(© Peter Palladino)

"It's true I haven't done a run of a show in New York since 2005," Epperson allowed, before quickly mentioning a handful of special events in which he's participated and the off-Broadway run of his southern-fried riff on Euripides, My Deah. In addition to that, Epperson retains a part-time job as a rehearsal pianist at American Ballet Theatre. He even made a cameo as himself (sort of) in the 2010 thriller Black Swan under the character name "Jaded Piano Player." "I can go to my grave saying that I was in a movie that was nominated for Best Picture," he said with a wry grin.

While he could have dipped his toes back into the theatrical waters with a couple of performances each week, that's not Epperson's style. He's diving headfirst into the deep end with three solo shows in repertory (seven performances a week). "I don't think anyone has ever done this," Epperson stated with only the slightest hesitation. "Companies have done repertories, but one person doing three shows?"

The trilogy includes his ever-popular The Passion of the Crawford, in which he portrays the famous Hollywood leading lady, Joan Crawford, in a live interview. Then there's Lypsinka! The Boxed Set, a compilation of Lypsinka's most popular short acts. Finally, the wig comes off for John Epperson: Show Trash, an autobiographical solo show that features Epperson seated at the piano singing and speaking…in his own voice.

John Epperson (aka Lypsinka) stars in The Passion of the Crawford at the Connelly Theater.
(© Francis Hills)

"I told myself there's no need to hide anymore," Epperson said. "You're grown up now. You've been through psychotherapy. You can sing too." So that's exactly what he'll be doing, while telling the story of his childhood in Mississippi and his career in show business.

Of course, singing adds a whole new dimension to Epperson's process as an actor. "I love my red wine, but I've had nary a drink since August 7," Epperson said, asserting that his vocal health comes first. He's also engaged in an intense workout regimen intended to keep him in tip-top shape. "It's like in Mommie Dearest when Faye Dunaway [portraying Joan Crawford] is jogging: 'Survive! Survive! Survive!'"

Perhaps Epperson makes this comparison out of his newfound understanding of the grande dame of the silver screen. "I don't see her as a figure of fun anymore," Epperson confessed. "As I get older, I find her more and more sympathetic."

Still, with the most performances scheduled of Epperson's three shows, The Passion of the Crawford is undoubtedly the most popular, and not just because the audience wants to revel in their empathy with the famously high-strung workaholic actress. The piece splices audio from Mommie Dearest, several of Crawford's films, and an onstage interview the actress gave at Town Hall, to hilarious result. "I've tried to reconcile that," Epperson admitted. "I guess people would perceive this show as laughing at Joan Crawford, but the show is ultimately not about Joan Crawford. I want to give the audience a treat of her as if she's a surrealist figure."

Surrealist or not, The Passion of the Crawford is likely to be a fleeting delight for Lypsinka and Crawford fans alike. "This may be the last time something like this happens in New York City," Epperson warned, adding, "I don't intend to make another traditional all lip-synched Lypsinka show with found material."

After three decades of mouthing along to other people's voices, Epperson is ready to set his own free. After all, that's the reason he moved to New York.

Click below to see a preview of The Passion of the Crawford:

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