Sunday, October 15, 2006


To listen to Janis Joplin’s music and not be deeply, soulfully affected means you have a soul as rancid as the ass-end of skunk roadkill. Joplin’s magic was in how close to the very nerve of aesthetic charge she operated. Emotionally she lived that charged life, and the evidence of that charge manifested itself in her voice.

So a musical that starts out with the music of Janis Joplin as its raw material has a decided advantage. I mean you could watch a dog taking a crap while listening to Joplin and be moved in a way cosmic, personal, and irreversible.

“Love , Janis” bases its narrative through line on letters from the book, Love, Janis authored by Janis Joplin’s sister, Laura. The onstage mechanism is to have the inner Janis narrate from her letters in divergent monologues and a second Janis, Janis Joplin the singer, delivers live performances of her music thematically related to the monologue/letter.

An interesting twist to this dichotomy is how the inner “Janis” and the singer “Janis Joplin” occasionally enter into dialogue. The narrative is furthered by an offstage “interviewer” whose voice comes like the voice of god but is meant to imitate the many interviews Janis Joplin gave.

Managing this inner-outer Janis—her monologue/letter’s home—and the interviewer/interviewee/God dynamic is where “Love, Janis” has its struggles. In the beginning of the play the audience struggles to resolve the skinny girl pretending to be Janis with the heavier set girl, who is doing the singing, and who appears to be the real Janis Joplin. The initial confusion in this particular set-up seems inevitable without a serious re-write. The solution is to dump the inner/outer Janis and just have one woman do both the monologues and the singing. This would much improve the staging.

That said, it would be beyond demanding to have the same woman do all the singing and successfully execute the monologues. The performance already has two different Janis Joplin singers. These two different singers alternate from night to night so as not to permanently ruin their voices. The demands on the voice and body of the woman singing as if she was Janis Joplin are excruciating. So to ask her to deliver the monologues—at the bookends of the live performances would take something beyond extraordinary.

I say beyond extraordinary because I think it more than difficult to find a singer who can even hold a match to the burn and charge of the original Janis Joplin. The play/musical (actually think of this as a kind of “American Opera” rather than a musical or play) is all but guaranteed to hit home because of its source material…I mean who has not flushed with gooseflesh when hearing “Take Another Piece of my Heart…”

But the risk when starting with such impossibly heightened material, whether it is Mozart, Picasso, Hendrix, or, in this case, Janis Joplin is that who in this world can actually even hold a flame to such talent? Are you going to ‘air guitar’ your Hendrix imitator? Are you going to have your Janis Joplin lip sync to the real Janis? Well of course not, not in a live play/musical performance.

So, while the “narrator” Janis, played by Marisa Ryan, was very pretty and nice to look at—I felt she was extraneous. If only she could have been played by the singer, Janis Joplin. Yesterday evening, our Janis Joplin was played by Mary Bridget Davies. You can learn more about her here:

Mary Bridget Davies, while no Janis Joplin, comes as close as I can possibly imagine any singer/actress to matching the power of Joplin’s originals. She exceeded my expectations because she never flinched from her task even when she could not exceed her character’s prowess—she hung in there, powerfully, remaining where I originally thought no singer/actress could ever get too. To hear Davies is be as close to Joplin without Joplin being there as one can get.

“Love, Janis” does so much right and so little wrong. I like that I have trouble categorizing it. I mean it is play…but it is also a musical. In my opinion the performance is an American opera. It tells a story, features a character of historical importance and re-envisions that character for us. Also, I admit affection for the very San Franciscan story line...Janis found herself here in S.F. and loved it--an experience many share.

“Love, Janis” not only revisits a character from our very American past but even tries to bridge subjects that remain topical—the tension between art and living, between integrity, soul, and stardom. The performance plays out a story of addiction and need that diseases the lives of many artists. This American opera manages history, story, and social relevance with a reasonable balance of story and metaphor. The music, oh so American in its making, ain't half bad either.

Even when it fails, falling prey to cliché and unneeded complication, Janis saves the production. Mary Bridget Davies, Janis Joplin, all my applause. No one deserves the applause more than you.

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