EDITOR’S NOTE: This event is over but go here for a review.
‘The Only Gal in Town’
Special Agent Galactica and Christopher Wingert
Go Mama Go!
1809 14th Street, N.W.
New Year’s Eve is the birthday of Special Agent Galactica, the performance art drag persona of local gay actor Jeffrey Johnson. So despite logistical hurdles, she’s not letting the occasion pass un-noted.
“The Only Gal in Town,” Galactica’s cabaret act with musical wiz Christopher Wingert, is Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. at Go Mama Go!, the 14th Street shop where Ganymede Arts, the region’s only LGBT arts organization, hosted recent productions of “Falsettos” and “Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney.”
Galactica, who was born four years ago as one of four drag characters who did a New Year’s Eve show called “SEXE: the Floor Show,” has continued each year. But this year’s show is different in two major regards — Johnson, in a Galactica first, is doing all the vocals live and it’s not a Ganymede production.
Johnson, who had 11 years of musical theater experience under his belt before moving to D.C. in 1997, found his pipes reawakened when he played the lead in “Falsettos” in September. He’d been mostly directing and lip syncing the last decade-plus.
“I can always do more (lip syncing) and I’m not done with that at all, but I do kind of feel I just wanted to try something different and I’ve been inspired by some of the cabaret artists I’ve gotten to know so I thought, ‘This could be a lot of fun,’” Johnson says.
The original plan for “Falsettos” was for Johnson to only direct but an 11th-hour pass from a friend Johnson had tried to arm twist to play the lead resulted in Johnson playing main character Marvin. That production proved doubly influential for the New Year’s Eve show — it not only reawakened Johnson’s love of singing, he found a kindred artistic spirit with “Falsettos” musical director/pianist Christopher Wingert, who’s sharing billing with Galactica for next week’s show.
Wingert was an emergency sub for a performance of “Naked Boys Singing,” Ganymede’s May/June show. He did so well, Johnson hired him for a major role in “Falsettos.”
Wingert, who saw Galactica perform for the first time at this summer’s Fringe Festival, says he and Johnson click.
“We have a ton of fun,” he says. “Sticking to the work is sometimes the tricky part because we end up cracking each other up and going off on all kinds of tangents.”
Next week’s show will find Galactica singing songs by Stephen Sondheim, Quincy Jones, Ray Stevens, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ann-Margaret, Dusty Springfield and others.
So what will Galactica — whom Johnson admits was conceived as a purposefully ambiguous personality capable of morphing into any guise the lip syncing material demanded — have to say now that she has the chance to speak? Some might shrug since “Falsettos” already proved Johnson can carry a tune, but for those who’ve seen Galactica’s many performances over the years — at Miss Pixie’s, at the Fringe or at ACKC — this is a huge paradigm shift.
Johnson says don’t expect any major soul baring a la Edie Beale’s New Year’s Eve cabaret act which Johnson has performed several times over the last couple years.
“Well, I hate cabaret shows where the people start talking,” he says. “Then it’s just me me me me me me me. I don’t really care. I just want to hear them sing. I didn’t come to hear them relay a life story. That seems a little bit of performance masturbation. So Galactica’s not a big talker. She lets the material speak for itself. I’m still trying to figure out what I need to say or what she would say between songs if she were lip syncing.”
Johnson has never gotten too wrapped up in notions of female illusion. It’s more about toying with notions of gender than trying to make people forget Galactica is played by a man. Subsequently he’ll be using his own vocal register in the show, not aping a higher female range.
“We’re not trying to give them an evening of Castrati,” he says. “It’s all part of the gender-fuck thing. But it’s a gentle gender fucking as it is a holiday.”
Wingert calls Galactica “a class act.”
“She’s a professional,” he says. “That’s the thing that really kind of seals the deal. Yeah, there are lots of performers and some are in wigs and some are not. But the ones that really have the polish and the stage presence to really nail it and just hit every mark every time, that’s very rare and Galactica really has that.”
The Ganymede board is behind Johnson’s venture. It just didn’t have enough money to stage the show itself. An artistically satisfying but financially draining year left the company depleted. “Naked Boys Singing” broke even. “Falsettos” probably would have, Johnson says, except that the company had to put about $10,000 into building a stage and seats in Go Mama Go’s back room after Miss Pixie’s landlord put the kibosh on anymore shows there. Both shows had high royalty fees as well.
“We had a terrific year,” says Ganymede board vice president Jim Bennett. “We put on some spectacular productions on a shoe-string budget and we had a lot of help but the money, in this economy, is just not readily available and we’re kind of always scrambling to make ends meet.”
The New Year’s Eve show will be divided into two acts. The first is voice and piano. A drummer and bass player will join Johnson and Wingert in the second half. It’ll also be over about 9:15 so attendees will have plenty of time to get to the spot in which they want to ring in the new year. Drinks, snacks and champagne will be served. JR.’s and Johnson’s friend, Patrick Vanas, are making donations for that.
So what inspires Johnson to continue forging ahead despite modest payoffs? He admits it’s been “really hard” to reconcile Ganymede’s near-pristine critical record the lack of grant funding and widespread regional support.
“Just being able to do these things is the biggest payoff,” he says. “Having the outlet. When I don’t have the outlet I get extremely depressed, moody. So it’s just that I’m grateful to have it … as a person, I’m artistically fulfilled. As an artistic director of a company, I think there’s a lot left to be desired … there’s no bragging rights to say you’re a patron of Ganymede like there is at Studio, or Arena, or to say, ‘Oh, I’m a patron of the Kennedy Center.’… Sometimes I don’t feel the community support is there.”
Bennett says anyone who hasn’t seen Johnson perform as Galactica should.
“He’s very talented and puts 110 percent into everything he does and he does it to perfection,” he says. “The kid has a lot of talent and a lot of dedication. I would love to see him be a really big star someday because he’s so committed to his art. If you have not yet seen him in this type of performance, you have to go. He is just terrific.”