When Janis Joplin was asked by her mother why she screamed so much when she actually had such a pretty voice, the rock and blues legend replied, "I have to save my pretty voice in case I ever end up in Las Vegas." The thought of a middle-aged Janis in a sequined peach overblouse, bi-stretch easy-fit satin trousers, and Naturalizer arch supports, gumming her way through a lounge-tempo "Down on Me," is enough to induce the boogie-woogie mopes in any right-thinking music fan.
On the other hand, had she managed to navigate her way through the needle-and-pill-littered 1960s, Joplin might have emerged as a Tina Turner-style über-diva. Of course, it wasn't to be, since the beast of insecurity and loneliness that fed her carnivorous performances eventually turned on its host and devoured her whole. But just pop in one of her CDs, and Joplin's raspy and unforgettable pipes, which sound like a six-pack-a-day Chesterfield habit steeped in Southern Comfort and extruded through a pinhole of pain, still have the power to stupefy -- even some 35 years after her death from a drug overdose. Faced with such talent, we are all in awe, like the slack-jawed Mama Cass, watching Janis from the first row at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and mouthing the word "Wow."
That voice, along with the gentle soul behind it, is the undeniable star of Love, Janis, now at the Hanna Theatre. Based on the book of the same name by Janis' sister, Laura, the play is in effect a full-blown concert, with short interludes that show the singer's quieter and more reflective side. Quoting liberally from the letters she sent home, a more three-dimensional picture of Janis emerges as she fights professionally to avoid becoming "the poor man's Cher." In this adaptation, directed by Randal Myler, two women portray Janis, one speaking and one primarily singing, to emphasize the bifurcation of her psyche (at one point the icon says, "I gotta go change into Janis; she's upstairs in a box").
Personal disconnect is a theme carried throughout, to incisive and sometimes touching effect, especially when both women are onstage at the same time, dressed identically in chain belts and feather boas, finishing each other's sentences. Left alone in countless hotel rooms, the Janis no one knew reads and shares her literary experiences with the homefolk, recommending The Hobbit to her sister, saying, "It's really very charming." Using the back wall to project old Joplin family photos, paleo-groovy psychedelic swirls, and shots of a few actual locations, director Myler conjures the late '60s and charts Janis' brief, phosphorescent career, from her wide-eyed audition with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966 to her tragic demise in 1970.
Janis found a complete world of sharing when she was onstage, and Katrina Chester as the singing Janis (she shares the tonsil-ravaging role with Lauren Dragon) embodies the explosive energy and total commitment of Joplin's full-body-contact blues. Even when she's not singing during musical bridges, Chester's either "going down" on the bass guitar or dry-humping the drum set, always making love to her music.
While Chester doesn't resemble Janis physically, she rips it up vocally on classics such as "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," "Ball and Chain," and "Me and Bobby McGee." Backed by a tight rock band, Chester connects with Joplin's signature style without attempting to be a letter-perfect (and therefore hollow) clone. Most important, the real Janis was always trying to get on the other side of the music, the side where all the nerve endings are raw and pulsing, the side where ordinary singers dare not venture. Chester pays homage to that uncompromising approach by throwing herself into each number like an Acapulco diver vaulting off the high rocks, hoping for a forgiving landing, but always risking a total wipeout.
Amazingly, Morgan Hallett, as the speaking Janis, matches Chester's intensity by stitching thoughts from the singer's missives and remembrances into a homespun quilt of surprising and poignant sweetness. In one letter, Janis adds a postscript: "Mother, did you notice the stamps on the envelope? Aren't they pretty?" She also requests a Betty Crocker cookbook for Christmas and tells about doting on her pets. Hallett never sentimentalizes any of this, allowing the emotion to accumulate naturally and powerfully.
To Janis, soul was simply a process of feeling as much as she could and expressing it in performances that were as direct and unfiltered as possible. In that, she succeeded. But eventually, Janis found that she couldn't wrap up the boundless love that was returned to her onstage, take it home, and curl up with it at night. That torment snuffed out her rage to live, and this spectacular production captures all the joy and all the disappointment. It is not to be missed.
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