Special Agent Galactica gives up lip-syncing to sing live
By Stephanie Merry
May 13, 2011
When drag act Galactica took the stage at the preview of last summer’s Capital Fringe Festival, that three-week deluge of offbeat theater, she all but stole the show. Her candy-pink hair was ’70s chic in a bowl cut, and her sequined minidress revealed mile-high legs that can only be described as great gams.
She was a 6-foot-3 vision of sass and sparkles. By the time the music started, her wagging finger and shimmying hips moving to the beat of a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” some in the crowd believed she was actually singing. But the lip-syncing phenomenon was just playing along.
It was a display of artifice layered atop artifice.
But the performer behind the wig, Jeffrey Johnson, sheds one layer of deception this week: He is keeping the dress but trading in the lip-syncing for live vocals and a backing band. The basement of Dupont Circle’s Black Fox Lounge — a leather-clad venue usually reserved for jazz and acoustic performances — gets an infusion of verve when it hosts the diva’s second live cabaret show Friday and Saturday.
Galactica was born eight years ago, as part of a lip-syncing quartet. The four-person show was designed to be a one-time fundraiser for the Actors’ Theatre of Washington — a company devoted to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender productions — of which Johnson was artistic director. But the performance, touting a loose plot based on four space-themed special agents, was so popular, it became a regular late-night show.
By 2007, Actors’ Theatre had changed its name to Ganymede Arts, and Galactica’s three cohorts had moved on to different projects, but Johnson decided to carry the torch alone. He signed on for a standing gig at the gay club Be Bar, which shuttered in 2009, then hosted roving shows at Logan Circle-area businesses, including ACKC and Go Mama Go, before performing at the Fringe Festival and taking his show on the road to New York.
As Galactica added more shows and the financially troubled Ganymede scheduled fewer, the faux-chanteuse seemed to become the unofficial mascot of Johnson’s theater company.
“I kind of used Galactica to keep Ganymede Arts’ name out there,” Johnson says. “It was easy for me to put a show together and it didn’t cost a lot of money, so I didn’t even have to pay myself if we didn’t have funds there.”
After years of struggling to keep Ganymede afloat, Johnson closed up shop last month. Yet the character invented to bolster the company remains.
Galactica’s foray into singing was the result of coincidence. Last fall, Johnson had to take over a role in one of Ganymede’s final shows, the musical “Falsettos.” Despite a background in musical theater, it was the first time Johnson had sung for a crowd since he moved to Washington nearly 15 years ago.
“I had been singing, but not without Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand belting it out in my ear,” he says.
Getting his vocal cords back in shape gave him an idea, which led to an experiment. Johnson hosted a live Galactica performance last New Year’s Eve at Go Mama Go. The show, which also featured pianist Christopher Wingert, sold out, so Johnson performed the same show again later in the month. The response was the same. The standing-room-only crowd watched Galactica give new life to eclectic hits, from Ann-Margret’s “13 Men” to a slowed version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” before a massive singalong unfolded to the tune of the Captain and Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
While lip-synced shows were prerecorded from start to finish, the new format affords Galactica the chance to do something new — have an off-the-cuff chat with the audience — which Johnson deems a cabaret must.
“You know, in cabaret shows, people talk all about themselves, which is something I can’t stand; I didn’t come to listen about your life,” Johnson said. “But I understand they use it for segueing into songs, so I’m starting to create a back story.”
That narrative involves interplanetary missions, led by the pink-haired special agent, with Captain Satellite (Wingert) and Galactica’s Escape Pods, also known as her band: drummer Patty Dougherty, bassist Francene Machetto and Steve McWilliams, who also performs as part of Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue.
The over-the-top stories don’t necessarily come naturally to Johnson, who claims to be an introverted only child when he isn’t donning heels. But when he gets into character, the attitude flows.
“It’s fun to hear him say that she would be upset at him because of the pizza he ate a couple days before he has to get into one of the dresses,” Wingert says.
And viewing Galactica as a separate, irrepressible entity capable of amping up an audience can be advantageous for an actor, especially on low-energy days.
“Today. my allergies are killing me. My throat is just raw, and I can’t believe I have to sing tonight,” Johnson said, as he geared up for an open rehearsal. “But I’ll feel 100 percent different as soon as the wig is on and the heels are on, and I walk out and people see me. I’ll feel great.”