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A CurtainUp Review
Unfortunately, Joplin was wrong. Her mountain-moving, blues-y wailing and breakout from the mold of traditionally pretty band singers made her one of the icons of ' 60s rock music. But her self-destructive instincts prevailed over her passion for the music and the joy she derived from her rocking and clapping audiences. Like Hendrix she died before her twenty-eighth birthday. Cause of death: A lethal injection of morphine and heroin
Love, Janis is not the first dramatization of Joplin's tragically brief beatnik life and career. The Rose (1979) about a fictional superstar à la Joplin launched Bette Midler's career as a film star. A documentary film, Janis -- The Way She Was assembled footage of Janis and her band as well as clips of her private life. Love, Janis is, however, the first that takes its stamp of authenticity, as well as its title, from its primary source material, a book by Joplin's younger sister Laura that told her story through a series of letters to her family in Port Arthur, Texas. That epistolary portrait, unlike Myra Friedman grittier biography Buried Alive, focused on a gentler, funnier and more intellectual woman than the raucous stage personality of public record. To translate her book into a theatrical vehicle, Laura Joplin turned to Randall Myler. She couldn't have chosen a more likely to succeed adapter and director than the man who directed the vibrant blues revue It Ain't Nothing But the Blues and who also turned folk artist Hank Williams' story into an Off-Broadway play with music, Lost Highways, (which I admired when it played at the now closed WPA theater prior to CurtainUp's founding).
What Myler has fashioned is part play, part concert. The bio-drama segments feature Catherine Curtin as the Janis who writes and reads from the letters. The concert segments feature Andra Mitrovich (alternating with Cathy Richardson) as the singing Janis who belts out nineteen Joplin standards accompanied by a six-piece combo. There are times when the performers are both on stage, dressed alike (though they bear no resemblance to each other or, for that matter, to Joplin). A third and never seen character (the voice of Seth Jones) is an amalgam of all the journalists who interviewed Joplin after her first triumph act the Monterey International Pop Festival of 1967.
. It's an interesting structure and Ms. Curtin and the alternating singers have had time to nail Joplin's voice and mannerisms during the show's previous incarnations (Denver Center , Cleveland Play House and Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor). The staging by Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer, aided by scene-setting projections by BO G. Eriksson, is especially admirable given the small stage. But while Curtin is often poignant and witty, the biographical elements are too sketchy to be on an equal footing with the more rousing rock-and-roll concert. The letters reveal Joplin's persistent need for parental approval and love but give us no sense of the people to whom these letters were addressed. We know Janis' mother had a bout with cancer and that her father valued scholarship -- but there's nothing to give us any insight into what went on around the Joplin kitchen table and what these parents did or didn't do to help the daughter who was obviously a misfit during her crucial high school years. As the letters are too fragmentary to keep the concert from overwhelming the drama, so the disembodied interviewer can't avoid sounding like a distracting copy-cat voice out of Chorus Line.
My quibbles about the show as a musical drama notwithstanding, the concert as concert is a real rouser -- and knowing she's got a day to rest up in between performances, Mitrovich (at the performance I saw, and I assume Richardson during her days) hold back nothing but go all out to rouse the audience with several encores in addition to such Joplin favorites as "Piece of My Heart," "Get It While You Can," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Ball and Chain," and "Turtle Blues." The arrangement and direction by Sam Andrew, who was a member of both Joplin's original band Big Brother and the Holding Company and the subsequent the Kozmic Blues Band, lend authenticity and nostalgia value, especially for those who actually went to Joplin concerts. Anyone with sensitive ears should be forewarned that this also means an authentically high decibel level!
This bio-concert seems to be part of a wave of small shows with big ambitions for dredging up memories of dead pop music idols for those old enough to remember them, and giving a flavor of their music and personalities to younger audiences who wish they had. Morrison, about Jim Morrison has had a brief run at the downtown Riant Theater (closing 4/30--212/925-8353). Eli's Corner, about the reclusive folk singer Laura Nyro, will soon open at the Vineyard Theatre (to be reviewed at CurtainUp). The possibilities are virtually limitless, though integrating play with concert is, as the Joplin show proves, a tough balancing act.