Clinton Leupp doesn’t pretend to be a girl. He’s a man in a dress with a drag alter-ego named Coco Peru. He’s very much a man and very much Coco – two personalities for the price of one. Now that’s value for your entertainment dollar in this economically unsteady world.
Leupp brought Coco to the Bay Area three years ago and performed Miss Coco Peru Is Undaunted at the New Conservatory Theatre. Now he’s making his Rrazz Room debut in Ugly Coco, which opened Wednesday, Oct. 15 and continues through Nov. 2 in the posh cabaret venue.
Before heading to San Francisco from the Los Angeles area home he shares with Rafael, his partner of 13 years, Leupp described himself as something of a political performer.
“It’s not that I’m overtly political,” he says, “it’s just that I’m saying things I’ve always wanted to say. I try and do it in a subtle, entertaining way. I think people will appreciate it, especially women. Sometimes drag makes women feel uncomfortable, but women are turned on to this show. That’s one thing I’ve gotten through my career. Women tell me they don’t usually like drag, but they like Coco.”
And what’s not to like about Coco? She’s a trim and pretty redhead, her big blue eyes set off by a prim, bouncy Marlo-Thomas-as-“That Girl” flip. She does her own singing (to recorded tracks), she delves into spiritual matters and curses like a sailor.
In Ugly Coco, before the first number (Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field’s “Nobody Does It Like Me” from the Broadway show Seesaw), he has charmed the audience completely and uttered a four-letter word that rhymes with “runt.” Twice.
The concept for this particular show came from an unpleasant real-life experience. One evening, watching “Ugly Betty” on TV, Leupp saw an autobiographical story from his last show unfolding on the small screen.
“That has happened to me three or four times,” Leupp says. “People in Hollywood say, `That’s egotistical. These things happen.’ Yeah, over and over again. After this one, I decided no, I’m talking about this, and it has been liberating. That’s where the title, `Ugly Coco,’ comes in. You steal from me, I’ll steal from you.”
Much of Ugly Coco is devoted to finding some sort of balance in life – balance amid all the struggle and ugliness. Somehow, Coco emerges as a savior. She calls herself “Drag Queen Jesus” and through various means – including the shimmy – she aims to help people find their inner drag queen. If you can transform the outer, she posits, you can transform the inner.
“One thing I’ve learned doing drag,” Leupp says, “is that people respect courage. Growing up in the Bronx, when I discovered the balls to do this, that’s when people in the old neighborhood started to respect me. People who never spoke to me would say hey on the street.”
So Coco, that misanthropic spiritual adviser (“You know what I hate about reality? People.”) swears she is going to save people, “even if I have to hold a f—–g gun to their heads.”
With her self-described “low-level drag queen celebrity,” Miss Coco has never the less taken Leupp on quite a journey. In the new show he talks about being an ostracized kid who would rather go to Radio City to see the movie version of Mame than go to Yankee Stadium.
Years later, he would be able to count Bea Arthur, whom little Leupp adored on the giant Radio City screen singing “The Man in the Moon ,” as a good friend and the person who introduced him to the joys of sushi. Coco talks about that in the show as well as a fantasy helicopter ride over Manhattan with another famous chum, Liza Minnelli, who also took him backstage to meet Barbra Streisand after a Madison Square Garden concert.
Leupp really is an actor inhabiting a character. He calls himself a drag queen, which is certainly true, but there’s more to Coco than that. She’s acerbic and outspoken and hilarious, and Leupp’s comic delivery is flawless.
Leupp pays homage to drag performers who came before him, including Charles Busch and Charles Pierce, but says he’s the first drag queen he knew of who delivered serious monologues amid all the quippy lines and belted songs.
“I love drag queens in bars – they can be very entertaining,” Leupp says. “But I knew I didn’t want to be in a bar setting. I trained to be an actor. I wanted to be in a theater doing something that was different. That’s what got me noticed in the beginning. I was a drag queen telling autobiographical stories, some of which were even moving. I was vulnerable on stage. Most people expect a drag queen to be sarcastic, bitter and mean to the audience. I wanted to go beyond that.”
In Ugly Coco, Leupp definitely takes Coco beyond that. When he delves into stories of childhood pain – being shunned at church, tortured at school – there’s real ache. And even though Coco ends up bitter more often than enlightened, she just can’t remain cynical or bitter, try as she might.
Listen to Coco sing “Moon River” to her tormented younger self and you’ll hear the pain and triumph of maturity.
Leupp is doing edgy, thought-provoking things with Miss Coco. Audiences show up for the drag queen thing – comedy, songs, bitterness – and come away with a whole lot more. This is edgy, interesting theater. Coco Peru is pretty and profane and – not to get too high and mighty about it – profound.
Ugly Coco continues through Nov. 2 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.
Now here’s a sneak peek of Coco in Ugly Coco.