June 17, 2010 | by David J. Hoffman
Clash of the divas

Lypsinka’s lips are together and her teeth are apart. And she is ready for battle in the Clash of the Divas.

Be warned, theatergoers! One “legend” faces another “legend,” locked in mortal combat and together with wigs ready and heels out and claws sharpened as only two aging Broadway legends out to humble the other can be.

It is, in fact, the return of “LEGENDS,” the show shadowed by the curse of having twice tried for Broadway and twice having fallen short, failing once in the early 1980s with Mary Martin and Carol Channing in the starring roles, and later again flopping with Joan Collins (TV’s “Dynasty” diva).

Now “LEGENDS” is back — the show that pits two aging Broadway stars battling it out on stage in this hilarious comedy as they seek to revive their respective fading careers at the other’s expense.

It is itself revived in a brand new adaptation for another crack at success, at the Studio Theatre. Now for a third time “ready for its close-up,” it is being brought back to life by American drag artist John Epperson.

“I am very eager for the public to see this new version,” Epperson told the Blade on the eve of previews, which began in the Metheny Theatre June 16. The official opening is set for 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday June 20, running through July 4.

Epperson is himself a legend in the persona of lip-synching Lypsinka. But this time Epperson is an actor, not a “drag artist” (a term he prefers to “drag queen”) as he plays one of the legends.

Meanwhile, in this play directed by Kirk Jackson, Epperson is credited with being the editor of the work of its original author James Kirkwood, who in 1989 wrote a book about why the show bombed, “Diary of a Mad Playwright.” But Epperson is really now more co-author than editor.

“I felt there was a way to capitalize on the notoriety of this play, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. This production is not the same text,” he declared, adding that “yes, it’s the same play with the same structure, but now it’s only one act, running 90 minutes, a shorter evening at the theater.”

The show, he said, includes some new musical numbers, while others have been deleted, and a character has been cut.

“Now their careers peaked in the 1960s, instead of the 1940s,” said Epperson, speaking of his role as the faded but fabulous diva Leatrice Monsee and co-star James Lecesne as Leatrice’s nemesis, Sylvia Glenn.

Lecesne is best known for his solo performance “Word of Mouth,” produced by Mike Nichols and Elaine May and directed by “Vagina Monologues” doyenne Eve Ensler. He is also an Academy Award winner for his short documentary film “Trevor.”

According to Epperson, “the play was not successful originally in the ‘politically correct’ 1980s partly because there were some people who thought they saw racism in the play in the role of the black housekeeper,” but Epperson has now completely rewritten that part to strengthen the character.

“I made her role bigger, so to me the show is not about two legends, it’s about three.” The multi-talented Roz White, seen locally in the past at Arena Stage for “Blues in the Night” and at Metro Stage in Alexandria in “Cool Papa’s Party,” plays the maid Aretha.

Born in Hazlehurst, Miss., in 1955, Epperson is himself a playwright as well as pianist and vocalist, who says he knew he was gay from very early in what he says was not a gay-friendly place to grow up. “But I didn’t have real sex with a man until after college.”

“Why do little gay boys love entertainment?” he asked. “I don’t know the answer, “We’re not taught it specifically, we just figure it out on our own.”

Raised a Methodist, after high school, he enrolled at Belhaven College, a small Presbyterian institution in Jackson, Miss., and while there he went to a local gay bar and for the first time saw drag performers doing lip-synching acts. In an earlier interview he called that experience “totally frightening because I saw myself up on stage” and knew that drag performers would be subject to great social ostracism. As a result, he stopped going to gay bars for a year.

But in 1978, after a stint playing piano in Colorado, he moved to New York City where he became a rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theatre and despite his earlier misgivings he began doing drag performances at several city clubs. Later he would star in two drag pieces, one of them “Ballet of the Dolls” in 1988, a send-up of Jacqueline Susann’s novel “Valley of the Dolls,” before launching his character Lypsinka later that year as a late-night addition to the bill of Charles Busch’s notorious “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York.

Later shows as Lypsinka followed and in 2002 Lypsinka made her first appearance at Studio Theatre for which he won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Non-Resident Production, and in 2004 and again in 2006 as Lypsinka he returned to the Studio, the last time portraying actress Joan Crawford in “The Passion of the Crawford.”

LEGENDS!
June 16 – July 4
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
Tickets $50-$71
202-332-3300 or
studiotheatre.org

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