Theatre Schmooze by Joel Markowitz
Podcast by Joel Markowitz with Lorraine Treanor
Lypsinka: The Passion of the Crawford
Written and performed by John Epperson
Studio Theatre until Feb. 25th
Part One: Setting the Stage: Memories
It’s rapid fire craziness – visually stunning and colorful, has funny costumes, impeccable lighting and sound and watching the lip-synching carefully to see if John might actually miss something, while at the same time, staring in awe at how perfect his lip-synching is.
It’s that impeccable comic timing, that look that John gives you – à la Jack Benny – and those hand movements as he conducts this manic symphony enveloping around you which makes you laugh so hard you can’t breathe. It’s “Manic Movie Jeopardy.” While you are trying to keep up, you are at the same time, trying to listen and concentrate carefully on all the funny lines and at the same time, you are trying to figure out where the lines came from. It’s “Lypsinka plays Trivial Pursuit with the minds of her audience.” And what fun it is to be part of the audience and to be played with!
I loved the manic zaniness of Lypsinka: The Boxed Set in 2002. When John was In Rep in 2004 at Studio Theatre, I was triply entertained.
As I Lay Lip-Synching was a hoot. I’ll never forget the opening of the show. Lypsinka appeared on the stage in a straight jacket after the announcer blurted out that our star had attempted suicide. As the music began to swell, “The Lyp” gazed at the audience, tore off her straight jacket, and belted out a song about “Hey world I’m here and I’m ready”, à la Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard’s famous finale. The insanity of that moment spread around the small Milton Theatre like a hoard of locusts, and we were off to the races – 105 non-stop intermission-less minutes of manic hilarity, a montage of silly moments from film, radio and TV, like Ethel Merman’s singing her bizarre disco version of “There’s No Business Like Show Busines”s. (it’s on CD now) and a manic version of Jennifer Holiday’s version of ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from Dreamgirls, where she kept pushing herself away while exclaiming, ”I’m goin’ back.” The audience went crazy. I was laughing so hard I was gasping for air. “I’m goin back! I’m goin’ back!”
At John’s non-Lypsinka, autobiographical Show Trash, he made us all feel “Liza Minnelli-ish,” as he dished the dirt about his stage career and reminisced about growing up Gay in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, (sounds like a contradiction in terms to me), being a gifted musician – he was the rehearsal pianist for The American Ballet Theatre – and how his love of music lead to the birth of Lypsinka. The show was heartwarming and John tickled those ivories beautifully. No dresses were needed that night.
Thanks, Joy Zinoman, for bringing John’s shows to DC!
And then there was the one-night staged reading of My Deah, John’s adaptation of Medea set in The New South, where John promised that “the children still die.” performed in 2004. More Deah details coming up.
Part Two: How Passionate Thou Art Joan, And Oh So Eloquent
It’s Press Night, Thursday, February 7th. Here we are in the cozy, intimate Milton Theatre again. Excuse me Mr. Sondheim. John Epperson has real passion for that Crawford lady. The Passion of The Crawford is not your usual manic Lypsinka extravaganza.
“We’ve reached a higher level,” Joy Zinoman tells the opening night audience after the show. The Passion of The Crawford doesn’t have usual Lypsinka non-stop hysteria, although there are plenty of laughs in the show, and the last section of the show is the usual histrionics which is Lypsinka’s trademark.
This is not Faye Dunaway over acting and making Joan Crawford look like a monster. There are no wire hangers here. This is John Epperson playing the aging movie star, who is bitter that her career is at an end, and who still has pride in her accomplishments – she never lets you forget that she won that Academy Award in 1945 for Mildred Pierce.
Here John shows total respect for his subject, and he is very careful not to let the audience make a buffoon of her This is a show where you laugh with her, and not at her. But those glances at the audience and those talented hands still can make you laugh until it hurts. John Epperson has restored to Joan the respect and dignity that was drained away from her in Mommie Dearest, the book and cult-favorite movie. And although the sound, costumes and lighting are terrific as they always are in John’s shows, everything here is simple and dignified, like the woman being interviewed.
The Passion of the Crawford recreates performances of two of Joan Crawford’ s favorite works of literature – Desiderata, the classic poetic declaration of what’s important in life and how you can live this life peacefully and a dramatic performance about the importance of caring for our children, which was written especially for Ms. Crawford. It’s touching the way Joan reads about Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland. The funny moments when Joan reads these two works come from the writings themselves, not from the woman who is reciting them so eloquently.
Joan, I hardly knew thee I liked you so much more now that I am willing to trade in my Coke for a Pepsi. Christina, do you hear this? We like your Mommie Dearest!!
Part Three: And Oh My Deah! “The Mind of a Beauty Queen is a Thang to Feah.”
All through November 2006, I kept praying that My Deah, which was to end performances on November 12th, would extend its run in the June Havoc Theater at the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex on 36th Street through Thanksgiving weekend. I just couldn’t find time to squeeze in the show before then because of my very busy theatre-attending schedule.
So, when I saw an announcement on Playbill that the show was being extended one last time and that the final performance would be on Sunday, November 26th at 3 PM, I immediately went online and bought a ticket. I had heard so much about the workshop at Studio in 2005, and since a full production had not yet been mounted in DC, I knew I needed to see it NYC. Two of my favorite NYC performers were in it – Nancy Opel, who I loved in Urinetown as Penelope Pennywise, and Jay Rogers who I loved in When Pigs Fly playing himself. I hadn’t seen Jay since Pigs, (I ushered dozens of times at The Douglas Fairbanks during Pigs’ 840 performance run, beginning in 1996) and I was eager to enjoy his comedic talents once again. He didn’t disappoint.
Here’s a short summary of My Deah:
My Deah Hedgepeth’s husband Gatori is cheatin’ behin’ her back with a much younger hushpuppy whose father happens to be the bumbling governor of Mississippi (who always needs someone to lend him a hand). My Deah is an outcast of sorts in Jackson- a Gator Traitor. When she was crowned Miss Louisiana State University, she fell in love with Gator Hedgepeth, the football hero from the college’s archrival, Ole Miss. Forever tarnishing her crown, she escaped Jackson with Gator and made Mississippi her new court, where she gave birth to her sons, Scooter and Skipper. Trouble abounds as My Deah now finds herself in a real mess (not Miss). Gator’s new belle is Simplicity Bullard, the governor’s daughter, and she’s got the brains of a southern fried chicken leg. My Deah’s own Greek Chorus is comprised of her bridge partners Mignon Mullen, Myrna Loy Seabrook and Brooksie Jones. They trade outrageous insults with My Deah’s loyal servant, Lillie V. You can only imagine the craziness that ensues. I laughed so hard that by the end of the last curtain call, my voice was gone with the wind.
(How’d I do, John?)
I waited for the cast after the show to tell them how much I loved their performances. They were kind enough to autograph my program. I turned to leave the theatre when there was the great John Epperson, himself, walking elegantly down the stairs. As we were both leaving the theatre, I turned to John and asked him if he would sit down to podcast with me and DCTR at Studio Theatre in February when he came to perform The Passion of The Crawford. Emails were traded and John sent me the OK to set it up the podcast with the press person at Studio. And that, dear readers, is how we got the podcast below.
Part Four: The Interview:
I’M AN ALMOST … BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD MAN … CUT!!
On Thursday, February 1st, in a rehearsal room at Studio Theatre, Lorraine and I awaited the arrival of John Epperson. Coming straight (I don’t think this was the right word to use) from Union Station, John immediately slurped from a bottle of Fruit 2 O, which I gave him, and immediately gave it the raspberries. I knew we were in for an interesting interview. Don’t believe me? Listen for yourself. Click here to listen.
Many have written articles about John and Lypsinka, and the costumes, the makeup and the jewelry. But, when John sat down with me and spoke about Joan Crawford and accessorizing, and his almost appearances in films Lorraine and I witnessed something that all those written articles and interviews couldn’t really capture – the twinkle in those beautiful blue eyes – the sweet, quiet voice of John Epperson that reinforced how much he loves what he does. Thanks John for sharing that joy with us.
Guess who won The Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Non-Resident Production at the 2003 Helen Hayes Awards?
Here were the nominees:
* Copenhagen at The Kennedy Center
* The Full Monty at The National Theatre
* Lypsinka! The Boxed Set at Studio Theatre
* Mamma Mia! At The National Theatre
* Man Of La Mancha at The National Theatre
And the winner was not:
Copenhagen, The Full Monty, Mamma Mia or Man of La Mancha
SHE WON!! SHE WON!!
In an interview in The Phoenix New Times on April 8, 2004, John was asked by Robert L. Pela if his career was really about revenge on all the kids who beat John up when he grew up in Mississippi. He replied, ”I don’t know that my career is about revenge, but I do sort of enjoy the irony that the thing people made fun of me for, which is being effeminate, is the thing I’ve made a living doing. When I performed in Mississippi and I got standing ovations and the show was sold out and all that, it made me feel like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. If I ever win a Tony award, I can say, “All the people who poked fun at me, look at me now!” You know, I did win the Helen Hayes award for Best Touring Show, and I beat out four Broadway shows to get it. I guess that’s revenge.”
Long Live The Lyp and Saint Joan!
Lypsinka: The Passion of the Crawford plays at Studio Theatre, 1504 14th St NW, Washington, DC until Feb 25th. Showtimes: 7:30 pm and selected weekend matinees at 2:30 pm or 5:00 pm. Tickets: $34 – $55. To order, call 202 332-3300 or click here.