[PLEASE NOTE: Moby Dick! The Musical has been extended through Oct. 19]
You can bet that Matthew Martin has the greatest gams on the Pequod.
Martin, the San Francisco drag superstar, is having a whale of a time heading the cast of Theatre Rhinoceros’ season-opening Moby Dick! The Musical.
He’s playing Headmistress Hymen, whose school, St. Godley’s Academy for Young Ladies, is about to go bankrupt. So, in true musical theater fashion (think Nunsense), she and her girls stage a musical version of Melville’s Moby Dick to raise some much needed funds. Headmistress, of course, takes on the role of Capt. Ahab.
“I’m playing Headmistress Hymen as a blend of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Glynis Johns,” Martin says over coffee and cigarettes in the Hayes Valley Victorian he shares with roommate (and co-star) Mike Finn. “And as Ahab, I’m drawing on Gregory Peck in the John Houston movie.”
Lest you think Martin is exercising his heavy-duty thespian muscles, he emphasizes that Moby Dick! is a comedy in the largest sense.
“It’s Shtickville, U.S.A.,” he says. “There are spit takes and everything. I like it. I’m not above a lowbrow joke. It’s one dick joke after another.”
Created in the early ’90s by Brits Robert Longden, Martin Koch and Hereward Kaye, Moby Dick! was noticed by super-producer Cameron Mackintosh, who booked it into a new studio theater in Oxford, where it became a cult hit. Against the advice of his colleagues, Mackintosh transferred the show to London, where the whale went belly up.
At Theatre Rhino, Moby Dick! is back in a more intimate space and directed by Rhino artistic director John Fisher, who has worked with Martin before in his plays Special Forces and Schonberg among them.
“Working with John is a mutual admiration society,” Martin says. “He can be an Otto Preminger of sorts. He won’t let you go on stage if you’re not ready. His tremendous love and care of a project can make him tough.”
As Headmistress/Ahab, Martin is in a demanding role – he says he doesn’t remember having to sing this much for a role – but he’s been in demanding roles before. He’s famous for taking the Bette Davis roles in stage adaptations of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and All About Eve.
In fact, he and fellow drag diva Varla Jean Merman (across the street from Rhino starring in Jungle Red at the Victoria) have plans to make a movie version of the drag Baby Jane.
Martin’s glamorous life as a grand dame of the Bay Area stage is balanced by his day job in a law firm – he’s a “legal sexy-tary,” as he puts it – a job he’s had for more than a decade and allows him the flexibility to pursue his show-biz career.
In recent years he (with roommate Finn) adapted the horrible Joan Crawford B-movie horror flick Trog for the stage. The show was so successful here they took it on the road to Los Angeles.
Last year, Martin and Finn opened up their home and turned the front parlor into a mini-theater (seating 70) and performed live episodes of “The Golden Girls” with an all-male cast. Martin played the lusty Blanche Devereaux.
He also went on tour with several Trannyshack performers including Heklina – Martin describes it as akin to a USO Tour – with stops as disparate as London and Santa Fe.
“In Santa Fe we performed at a lesbian pizza parlor,” he recalls. “They were so hungry for entertainment! The dressing room was upstairs over the pizza ovens, and the partition for the dressing room was made of Saran Wrap.”
Touring through Martin’s home – a shadowy Victorian wonderland of dark, rich colors crowded with antiques – the performer mentions some of his triumphs on stage at the Castro Theatre where he impersonated some great Hollywood ladies, who just happened to be in attendance, Jane Russell and Ann Miller among them. Most recently he performed as Mitzi Gaynor for Mitzi Gaynor. She autographed an album cover for him: “To Matthew – You’re the best!” In the photo of the two together, the resemblance is startling.
The world of drag, Martin says, has become a whole lot less shocking than it used to be and become much more a part of the mainstream.
“I’ve never really considered what I do to be doing drag,” Martin says. “To me it’s about playing a character, whether it’s Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland or whoever. It’s not about genitalia, it’s about character.”
“Moby Dick! The Musical” continues an extended run through Oct. 19 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 415-861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org.
Here’s Martin during his Mitzi Gaynor gig at the Castro Theatre earlier this year: