Loving all of ‘Love, Janis’
July 10, 2006
Ostensibly, “Love, Janis,” a dramatic musical about Janis Joplin, reveals the late rock dynamo’s relationship with her family. Randal Myler’s show, in the midst of a run as part of the Theatre Aspen season, is constructed largely around the letters Joplin sent from Summer of Love-era San Francisco to her parents and siblings back in Port Arthur, Texas, the industrial Gulf Coast city Janis escaped.The correspondence does, indeed, present a facet of the singer one might not have expected, given her legendary addictions, love life and flamboyant stage persona. The Janis of the letters is introspective, awestruck with the hippie scene, and imbued with a desire for domesticity. (At one point, she asks for “a good cookbook” for a Christmas present.) Above all, Janis comes across as sweetly devoted to her family, consistently pleading with them to come visit her in California, and see her perform.
This Janis, and the boozing rock star with the soul of a blueswoman, are such different creatures that “Love, Janis” divvies them up between two actors. (Three, if you count the fact that the demands of singing Janis’ songs requires actors to alternate nights in the role.) Elizabeth Rainer reads Janis’ words with what starts out as wide-eyed innocence. On the night I saw the show, Mary Bridget Davies brought an awesome approximation of Joplin’s feeling and sound to the songs. (She shares the role with Andra Mitrovich.)It is what Janis put into those letters to her family that gives “Love, Janis” its dramatic arc, and raises it above the jukebox musicals Theatre Aspen has presented in recent summers. (For those who fearing a return of the humdrum experience of “Lies & Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin,” relax: It is safe to go back into the tent.)Much of what Janis addresses has to do with stardom, and a performer’s relationship to her fans. Joplin, as made clear in the show, had a fragile makeup; even before she arrived in San Francisco, she had sought psychiatric help. She never appears to be on the same page as her fans: Janis, under the spell of Bessie Smith and Leadbelly, aimed to sing the blues that were inside her. Fans in the late ’60s wanted to dance and mellow out; a true blues singer would have bummed their trip. Janis obliged, but the compromises of filling expectations ate at her soul.
“People, whether they know it or not, they like their blues singers miserable and drunk. And hey, baby … they like their blues singers to die afterwards,” Janis says shortly before complying.Joplin’s struggles with drugs, expectations, and her parting with her first band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, are handled with no melodrama and, thankfully, without cautionary tones. A scene of her shooting heroin is done sidestage, silently, almost matter-of-factly. Matching that sense of subtlety, the two Janises are presented not as clashing opposites, but two facets of the same character. The one aspect out of place is the voice of the rock critic, whose interview practically needles Joplin with morality.
Even if Janis’ story was cast as a morality tale, the song performances, dished out generously here, would balance the experience of “Love, Janis.” Those coming primarily for the music won’t be disappointed; virtually all the hits are here, most performed in their full length. The quality of the band, consisting entirely of local musicians, matches Davies’ singing. And when you tally up what Joplin left behind – “Piece of My Heart,” “Down on Me,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and, the highlight of the evening, “Ball and Chain,” rendered in the fashion of Janis in her breakthrough appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival – it ain’t exactly Harry Chapin.”Love, Janis” plays this week through Saturday, July 15, and through Aug. 5 in the Theatre Aspen tent. For a full season schedule, go to http://www.theatreaspen.org.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org