Best of Both: John Epperson
John Epperson performs The Artist Principally Known As Lypsinka at Joe’s Pub
by JK Clarke
To refer to the John Epperson shows earlier this week at Joe’s Pub as merely “a cabaret act” would be a mistake. True, his set is largely made up of carefully curated and historically outlined show tunes which detail his love for, and emergence into, the world of Broadway musicals. But it’s more than that, for he breaks up the set with performance pieces—some more humorous than others, but all clever and multi-layered—that turn the night into something more of a variety show than a music set. The combination makes the nearly hour and a half show feel like a full evening with multiple performers. But, it’s just Epperson—the artist Principally Known as Lypsinka—who fills the tableau.
Opening without comment and launching, with his strong, forceful and rich piano playing, right into a medley of numbers—including “Ten Minutes Ago” (Rodgers and Hammerstein), “Do I Hear a Waltz” (Rodgers and Sondheim) and “I Think I May Want to Remember Today” (Shire and Maltby Jr.)—before explaining why he’s wearing a kelly-green Thierry Mugler blazer he picked up at a fashion show in Paris: “it feels very show biz-y.” Satisfied, he quickly adds “but now that you’ve seen it, I think I’ll take it off,” and he performs the remainder of the show all in black, including a mock turtleneck that seemed worn in defiance of the oppressive heat and humidity we’d all just escaped.
Much of Epperson’s program, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not, touches upon a theme of traveling between worlds. He suggests with some of the numbers early in the set that perhaps they should ordinarily be sung by a woman—yet he sings crisply in a voice that could be masculine or feminine. Later, one of his theme sets is about Christine Jorgensen, one of the first out-transgender women and a pioneer of transgender rights. He opens the medley with Frank Loesser’s “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen,” which just happens to be where Jorgenson had her (later well-publicized) sexual reassignment surgery . . . in the early 1950s! And then there’s the obvious bridging of worlds in which Epperson, a beloved female impersonator/performer, is here performing as a man with a nightclub act. The show itself, The Artist Principally Known As Lypsinka, walks the line between piano lounge act and variety show.
Even some of the songs are dual in their purpose. By way of introducing a Betty Comden tribute, Epperson tells of a colorful upbringing in Mississippi, where he learned to love show tunes and took piano lessons from a woman who lived with a “friend” everyone called “Uncle Nell.” The first number of the medley, “I Said Good Morning” (Comden/Green) is a jaunty, staccato number (like many of the songs in the set) in which the narrator says good morning and goodnight to everything from the “chickies and the hens” to the sun on her farm, before finally, in a humorous left turn, she tires of it all, telling those happy creatures to “go away and lie there in a heap!” It’s a song that captures Epperson well: a love of a fun, campy melody, but with a humorous, winking twist.
Sprinkled in between the songs Epperson lip-syncs old recordings, including a bawdy 1960s novelty song, “(He Likes to Nibble On My) Cupcakes,” and closing with a recording of Susan Lucci’s “long overdue” Emmy Award acceptance speech. While the straight lip-sync is hilarious in its own right (Lucci is the ultimate self-important “diva,” despite the fact that her claim to fame is a 20+ year stretch on a daytime soap opera), Epperson throws in incongruous winks, facial spasms and “bitch-faces” that cause our audience to convulse with laughter. Behind the laughs, however, is the art: Epperson is subtly demonstrating that his powerful performances as Lypsinka are not merely rooted in gorgeously-styled drag, but rather in his remarkable acting ability. In plain clothes he communicates volumes with a glance or a twitch, taking the story to unanticipated depths. And that’s the crux of an Epperson nightclub performance. While it may seem, at first blush, to be one thing, he delivers so much more, and not what you’d expected at that. To see an Epperson show is to see a master in peak form.
John Epperson: The Artist Principally Known As Lypsinka resumes September 13 and 16 for two more performances at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette, near Astor Place), www.publictheater.org. For more John Epperson or Lypsinka information visit www.lypsinka.com
Photos: JK Clarke