The word “genius” gets tossed around regularly, undoubtedly by people assured they’re using it advisedly and deliberately. I say this because I’m just about to toss it around while absolutely convinced I’m using it advisedly and deliberately. And I’m defining genius as someone possessing an uncategorizable spark, a vision that sets her or him well above a performing norm.
The two geniuses about whom I’m talking are Barb Jungr and John Epperson, who’s better known on the stage as Lypsinka. As a matter of serendipitous fact, I recently saw them on successive nights, which is the sort of thing that can happen—rarely—in a place like New York City, where the entertainment cornucopia never stops overflowing.
Jungr was ending a two-week return engagement at 59E59 in a show—although “show” somehow trivializes the appearance—called Hard Rain, which is pegged to her latest CD. Through it, she sings only Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs. For an unimpeachable reason: She’s convinced they’ve both looked at the state of the world and, in their songs, have most accurately assessed where we all are in it.
Blond hair in a Dutch Boy cut and wearing a red tunic over black tights that made her resemble a bright flame, she emotes the words in ways the songwriters—who see their job as writing and then straightforwardly disseminating what they’ve written—never have. She mines everything Dylan and Cohen intended to put into their threnodies and simultaneously distills and elaborates on them
When she sings Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” she’s so wrapped in it that the audience becomes rapt. When she sings Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” she often looks at the audience between notes with a mock astonished expression, as if to say, “Can you believe the audacity of such a thing?” When she sings Dylan’s “Masters of War,” she faces up left as if addressing those corrupt, hidden power mongers with her indictment.
Though these three, and just about all the songs she chooses, are corrosive and confrontational, Jungr’s performing isn’t strictly unadulterated pessimism. She’s usually off-the-cuff funny with her introductions. The late-afternoon audience with whom I sat was initially quiet–not, it seemed, certain what to make of the kinetic performer. In her commentary, she took that in stride, until they were in stride with her.
The Stockport-born, London-based Jungr also dances throughout many of the selections to which she’s so committed. Prodding her along at the piano was her usual stateside accompanist Tracy Stark. On percussion was Mike Lunoe, who seems to have no end of bells, whistles and drum heads, which he uses sparingly and therefore that much more meaningfully.
Jungr went to Goldsmiths, University of London and also spent much time in Africa, where she learned how desolate things can get but also where she picked up many of the moves with which she complements her singing.
I first saw Jungr more than a decade ago, when she presented her Jacques Brel retrospective in the tiny downstairs black box at The Flea. Her shaking up that canon twigged me to what an extremely perceptive singer can do with a catalog a reviewer thinks he knows well.
This, I thought, is new and worth finding out more about. Since then I haven’t missed anything Jungr has done with, to and for, among other programs, Elvis Presley material and American lyricists and composers from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her version of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” for instance, would have Diamond himself smiting his forehead in disbelief at the potential of what he originally wrought for The Monkees. When she plays 54 Below for several days come January 2015, I’ll be there, of course.
I’m convinced, though, that her convictions about Dylan and Cohen and her dedication to convince others of their importance explain the surpassing quality of Hard Rain. This gig isn’t only her best. If you think of cabaret as it’s evolved from ‘20s Weimar Republic kabarett, then Jungr now establishes herself as today’s single absolutely essential contemporary performer.
After a nine-year vacation from his nonpareil creation Lypsinka, Epperson is bringing the confident lady out of the clothes closet and off the wig stand. The occasion is a run, through January 3, 2015, at the Connelly, of Lypsinka! The Boxed Set and The Passion of the Crawford. (The latter would be Joan Crawford, of course). He’s also appearing autobiographically as his Mississippi-born self in John Epperson: Show Trash.
The bedrock point about Epperson’s achievement is that he alone has raised lip-synching to an art. His astonishing employment of it to make statements about things like what constitutes femininity, the clichés of nightclub performances and mental health is seminal..
Since I’ve only seen Lypsinka! The Boxed Set so far this time around—and it was enough to remind me what brilliance he projects—I’m remarking on that alone.
In it, he’s a singer of the sort who played New York niteries like the Empire Room, the Persian Room and the Copacabana in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the supposedly soigné outfits Bryant Hoven must get a kick out of concocting and in the flaming orange coiffure with the frozen red-hot waves, Lypsinka looks a lot like Dolores Gray. (That’s for those who remember her.)
What Epperson has done to construct a sidesplitting and thought-provoking act is cull through thousands of hours of records and soundtracks for excerpts that he and engineer Alex Noyes splice together and Kevin Malony directs. The exhaustive turn is marked by phony-baloney sentimentality, during which he gestures and parades and assumes myriad moues while compulsively lip-synching to songs, patter and the many intakes of breaths.
In particular there are unforgettable sequences when Lypsinka hears a phone ringing and then another and then a third and proceeds to answer them, responding in a flourish of moods to whomever Is on the other end of the line. Among classic routines in show-biz annals, this one qualifies as ranking near the top.
One of the most amusing challenges while watching and listening to Lypsinka is identifying the voices used. I didn’t do as well as I thought I might. Sure, I nailed Bette Davis, Ethel Merman, Elizabeth Taylor, Tallulah Bankhead, Frances Faye, Natalie Wood, Vikki Carr (“It Must Be Him,” her Top 40 click), but among those I missed were Polly Bergen, Kim Stanley and Sandra Dee.
Never mind. The significance here is that no one has previously realized how hilariously far and how insightfully deep lip-synching—often dismissed as theatrical hokum until Epperson came along—can be. Furthermore, it’s likely to be some time before anyone else figures out a way to take it even farther.