Musical Numbers: “What Good Can Drinking Do?,” “Down On Me,” “Bye, Bye Baby,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Turtle Blues,” “Women Is Losers,” “Piece of My Heart ,” “I Need a Man to Love,” “Summertime,” “Ball & Chain,” “Mercedes Benz,” “A Woman Left Lonely,” “Work Me, Lord,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “To Love Somebody,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Move Over,” “Get It While You Can.”
Authorized and initiated by the intensely protective family of the late Janis Joplin, Randal Myler’s new bio-musical about the hard-living Texas 1960s roadhouse screecher who stomped all over the San Francisco psychedelics is wending its way toward Gotham after lucrative and popular prior stops in Denver, Austin, Cleveland and (currently) Chicago. Given the lack of any new narrative juice and the general paucity of dramatic conflict, there’s not much in this thematically thin Joplin love-fest for traditional legit audiences or scandalmongers. But thanks to some splendid wailing, a moving evocation of the star’s personal pain, and Sam Andrew’s close attention to an authentic Big Brother sound, hard-core Joplin fans will have a blast.
Too intimate for Broadway, “Love, Janis” should bring decent amounts of dough in a long-term Village stand — with San Fran beckoning tantalizingly in the tuner’s future. SFX has cash invested.
Myler (“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues”) decided that he would compose the narrative entirely from Joplin’s own words, so “Love, Janis” is based completely on the letters that Joplin wrote home to her family. Since these missives are personal and sanitized, the approach has its limitations. Instead of the postcards from the edge that one might expect the self-destructive singer to have hurriedly scrawled, the rock star actually proved to be a prolific, affectionate and insecure correspondent.
As singers with the required vocal instrument would tend not to have the necessary acting chops, Myler conceived the piece with two Janises — one sings and one reads the letters. Both appear in the very few dramatized scenes, usually speaking in response to an unseen interviewer who functions as a kind of composite of all the external media forces that helped create the public Joplin persona. The duality is awkward in places — especially when the two appear together — but the conceit generally works efficiently enough.
Backed by musicians designed to look and act like the originals (the horns come and go based on whom Joplin had hired or fired at the time of the first recording of the song in question), the singing Janis belts through most of the Joplin repertoire within a couple of fast-moving hours, pleasing devotees with such classics as “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”
But since this piece is out to reveal the softer side of Janis, also on offer are more unusual songs from her repertoire, such as Richard Rodgers’ “Little Girl Blue” and the Gershwins’ “Summertime.” Between all the warbling, the speaking Janis offers snapshots of her inner psyche as psychedelic images are projected onto the backdrops.
Like all the shows of its celeb genre, this piece lives and dies on the quality and authenticity of the performers. The producers struck gold when they found Catherine Curtin (who has been with this project through several incarnations), an intensely appealing and vulnerable actress with considerable craft. Where lesser thesps would surely fail, the highly credible Curtin manages to add dramatic heft to what are, in essence, boring letters. It’s a terrific performance.
Singing credits are shared (on alternate nights) by the Texas-based Andrea C. Mitrovich and a Chicagoan named Cathy Richardson. A return visit to the show on its second night revealed Richardson — a hard-driving local rocker — to be the better of the two. Although Mitrovich probably has the superior voice, the hipper Richardson acts the songs more convincing and is generally more believable in the Joplin persona.
Before Gotham, more money needs to be invested in the production values, which are minimal at present. The dramatic scenes also need serious work, and the show badly needs an infusion of tension.
But there’s a solid cast already in place. And since musical director Andrew actually played with Big Brother and the Holding Co., he ensures a very authentic musical bash. Profitability, of course, depends on the extent of the appeal of the show’s heroine. But “Love, Janis” smashed box office records in Cleveland, and, judging by the big Chi audiences for this open, commercial run, there are plenty of local ex-hippies ready to rock.