2/22/2008 12:00AM CST
by Alexandra Bonifield
The main problem with a biopic is that everyone already knows how the story ends. There’s no suspense or dramatic conflict to resolve. Case in point is the national Columbia Artists Theatricals’ touring show Love, Janis playing through February 24 at the Majestic Theatre under the auspices of Comerica Bank and Dallas Summer Musicals. The music is beyond fabulous. The additional stuff is, well, stuff.
Randal Myler, director/co-author of the award-winning “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” biopic conceived of and directed this musical, drawing inspiration from Laura Joplin’s biography of her sister, “Love, Janis.” The program states that the “entire spoken text comes directly from Janis, herself”, gleaned from family correspondence and media interviews. What comes across is the disparity between the average, insecure, small town girl desperate for love and approval that Janis was and the consummate blues/rock singer she became, an ideal disaffected, drug-addicted icon for the late 60’s era.
The audience is initially lulled to attention by black and white family photos from Janis’ childhood projected in muted tones across a huge scrim behind the stage, accompanied without explanation by a recording of Odetta singing “I Know Where I’m Going”. Without pause the frenetic, psychedelic rock show launches in full force, The lights come up bright and full on a rockin’ out four piece band and there she is– it’s Janis in signature 60’s garb, large as life, pouring everything she’s got into “Piece of My Heart” on a downstage mike. Psychedelic-inspired patterns swirl and gyrate across the upstage scrim. All that’s missing is the odor of stale, cheap beer mixed with the heady perfume of marijuana smoke wafting through the crowd. And the singing Janis is breath taking.
She’s precisely what everyone came for, to catch a glimpse of a memory, a sense of what it must have been to experience the genius of Janis Joplin in all her earthy, heartfelt, rough-edged glory. Stomping, swaying, clapping, on their feet, cheering-the audience welcomes her rebirth. Tuesday night’s performance featured accomplished blues, rock and soul singer Mary Bridget Davies as the singing Janis, fresh from performing the role in San Francisco and Houston. Her sustained re-creation of Janis’ style, tone and unique delivery is a masterful feat of interpretation and mimicry. To spend an entire evening basking in her performance as Janis makes a fantastic experience indeed. Unfortunately, this biopic follows a different path.
Inexplicably, there are two Janis Joplins in Love, Janis: the singing Janis and a speaking one, portrayed by New Yorker Marisa Ryan. The wear identical costumes and frequently share the stage at the same time, awkward audience to respective spoken or sung scenes. Near the end they huddle together downstage and singing Janis croons to speaking Janis, followed by a shamelessly schmaltzy hug. Two Janises might work very well if speaking Janis revealed all aspects of the offstage life while singing Janis enlivened the larger than life rock star aspect, an intriguing dramatic dichotomy. Costuming them like twins destroys the dual persona effect and detracts from the play. One woman is petite, while the other is full-figured. Matching colorful velvet bell-bottoms with flashy white trim and fringe make the larger woman appear grotesquely large standing next to the petite “twin”, while the matching pastel feather hairpieces worn by both performers later in the show overwhelm the petite performer’s face and make her look silly.
Speaking Janis reveals a lonely, intellectual, pensive woman, one who loves her pets and writes longingly to her mother in Texas, ever seeking approval and attempting to justify her West Coast existence. It’s not the wild, party girl Janis her fans know, the one the media creates and hounds. She doesn’t fit wearing the garish garb, which belongs solely as a planned effect on Janis’ rock star persona.
The on-stage band grows from four pieces (two guitars, bass, drums) to include keyboards and a two-piece horn section. Listed musicians in the program are: Mark Alexander, Ben Nieves, Eric Massimino, Jim Wall and Tim Brawn. They definitely know their rock and blues. The sound mix is excellent, loud enough to give the sense of a rock show but not so blaring as to injure eardrums or drown out singing Janis. The band plays seventeen numbers, providing rousing accompaniment to singing Janis’ dynamic performance. The tunes gain daring, raw edginess as the show unfolds. High musical point comes at Act One’s conclusion, with a tantalizing rendition of Willie Mae Thornton’s “Ball and Chain”.
There’s curiously scant reference to Janis’ long history of drug abuse; neither performer ever exhibits the ravages of besotted, drug-induced behavior. Asked about Jimi Hendrix’s death by overdose, speaking Janis comments, ” Some people die and some are survivors. People like their blues singers miserable and drunk.” Self-justification, apology? No apology needed for the musical performance part of Love, Janis. Go to thrill to the inner light and sound of a super energized rock icon or experience her musical mastery for the first time. It’s impossible to not love Janis