Review: `The Passion of the Crawford’

Last year, I reviewed Lypsinka’s fantastic The Passion of the Crawford, which returns to San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room tonight for a run through April 22. Below, in honor Lyp’s return, is my original review.

Lypsinka resurrects Crawford with Passion
three stars Dazzling

John Epperson has become a cult star without saying a word.

In the guise of his drag character, the fabulous Lypsinka, Epperson parades around onstage lip synching to an expertly produced sound collage full of movie dialogue, obscure cabaret singers and other esoterica.

We all think we can lip synch, whether it’s with a hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror or pretending to “sing” one of our hit singles on TV (hello, Ashlee Simpson). But as Lypsinka, Epperson lip synchs to perfection. With his painted lips, exaggerated expression and flawless style, he raises the act of mouthing words and lyrics to an art form.

It’s been nearly five years since Epperson performed in the Bay Area, and he makes a welcome return in his new show, The Passion of the Crawford, at San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room.

This time around, Lypsinka is doing things a little differently. She’s inhabiting one character for the entire show: movie legend and wire hanger hater Joan Crawford.

When it comes to campy fun, there’s no bigger, juicier target than Crawford, Mommie Dearest herself. But Epperson and director Kevin Malony wisely refrain from adding laughs, because Crawford provides plenty on her own.

The soundtrack for his Passion is taken primarily from a recording made at New York’s Town Hall in 1973 when Crawford sat down for an onstage conversation with John Springer, host of the “Legendary Ladies of the Screen” series.

Apparently Crawford, then in her late 60s, was terribly nervous about the appearance, but she had known Springer for years, and after a tremendous ovation from the adoring crowd, relaxed into the interview and proved to be both interesting and funny.

For The Passion, Epperson basically re-creates that interview. Steve Hasley plays Springer, and Epperson, in a gorgeous, bejeweled black gown and upswept red hair, is a wonderfully expressive Crawford.

It’s a tribute to both Hasley and Epperson that their lip-synching skills are so good that it’s easy to forget they’re not actually speaking.

And because the interview is presented almost in its entirety, we really get a sense of Crawford. For almost an hour, she bemoans the lack of dignity in 1970s Hollywood, tells stories about Greta Garbo, Johnny Garfield, Clark Gable and others.

About Bette Davis (with Crawford below), the co-star she came to loathe while working on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Crawford said, “We must have challenges. Otherwise, we don’t grow. I think Bette Davis, in Baby Jane, was one of the greatest challenges I’d ever had. I meant that kindly. I had more control and learned more discipline. … No, no, let me explain that please. Bette is of a different temperament than I. She has to yell every morning. And, so, I just sat and knitted. I knitted a scarf from Hollywood to Malibu.”

When asked if there were any good roles out there for her, Crawford said: “They just don’t write for us any more. Barbara Stanwyck feels the same way, we talk about it. Not often, because I don’t live in the past. I live in today preparing for tomorrow.”

When Crawford, who had a reputation for being a control freak, dispenses wisdom, the result is unintentionally funny.

She instructed young actors to “learn to breathe, learn to speak, but first learn to feel” with all the earnestness of a yoga teacher.

Epperson embodies Crawford in a straightforward way without too much exaggeration, and the result is not only believable but also quite fascinating.

The soundtrack does break away from the 1973 recording a few times — to a Christmas Eve radio broadcast with Joan and her kids, to songs Crawford sang in early films — and for the last 15 minutes or so, Epperson hauls out some truly bizarre recordings, including Crawford reading from the Desiderata, a meditation urging peace with God.

The prayer-like recording is the centerpiece of a manic sound collage that recalls the Lypsinka performances of old, complete with ringing telephones, movie dialogue (including delicious bits from Crawford’s final, horrible picture, Trog), shrieking, barking and nightmarish glimpses into Crawford’s tortured psyche.

If only poor Joan had remembered to breathe, speak and feel.

For information about The Passion of the Crawford, visit

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