Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose in 1970, Joe Cocker did not. Janis Joplin is now the subject of an Off Broadway musical, Joe Cocker is not. Back in the late 1960s, Joplin and Cocker were the two major practitioners of what was called “white soul.” I don’t know if Cocker’s life is worthy of a bio play. From the evidence of “Love, Janis,” the much-traveled new show at the Village Theater, Joplin’s is not. But death becomes her.
Based on sister Laura Joplin’s biography, “Love, Janis,” this quasi-concert tells the singer’s life story through 19 of her songs, several letters she wrote to her mother and an offstage interviewer (Seth Jones) who asks the tough questions: “Your first concert in San Francisco, what was it like?” and “Do you ever get stage fright?”
As adapted by Randal Myler, who also directs, “Love, Janis” employs a familiar showbiz arc: obscurity to fame to quick burnout in three easy, predictable acts. On perpetual tour, the performer quickly tires of the constant round of motel rooms, but there’s no life beyond it that she can return to.
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A wistful poignancy emerges in Janis’ letters to her mother. The letters also reveal an awkward charm in the jibe between her rebel stage persona and the girl who privately thrills at seeing Pearl Bailey in “Hello, Dolly!” or getting a bouquet of flowers from the Monkees.
Shortly before her death, at 27, Joplin appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” to announce she was going to her high school reunion. It was payback time for being voted the ugliest person, and her return to Port Arthur, Texas, made Time and Newsweek. Then she overdosed.
Joplin’s story doesn’t hold the stage, though her performances nearly always did (her fiasco at Woodstock being the rare exception). She fascinated as much for her natural vocal talents as for her prodigious exhaustion of those talents by singing too long, too hard, too rough.
What performer today could possibly act and sing like Janis Joplin? Myler tries to solve that problem by casting two actresses — one who performs the songs and another who reads the letters and gets interviewed. Myler sometimes has his singing Janis join his talking Janis in the dialogue, which creates an unintended Sybil effect.
As the talking Janis, Catherine Curtin is a blowzy, slightly dense young woman who appears stoned even before she discovers marijuana, Southern Comfort, morphine and heroine in pretty much that order.
As the singing Janis, Andra Mitrovich doesn’t possess Joplin’s fat, rough column of sound. Her natural voice and laid-back demeanor is closer to Joplin’s contemporary Mama Cass, who had to take a back seat to the up-and-coming Janis at the Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967. Still, Mitrovich re-creates some of the magic with “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “Move Over,” two of Joplin’s more raucous efforts. In the far gentler “Summertime” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” the differences between this singer and the legend are more exposed.
And when delivering dialogue, Mitrovich presents a far less outre persona than Curtin, so that the show turns into an interaction of fun, naughty Janis and good, boring Janis. Mitrovich nearly blushes at some of Curtin’s more pointed swipes at social convention.
Production designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have created a stunning visual backdrop for “Love, Janis.” With Bo G. Eriksson’s fluid back projections, they recall the era of acid.
Cathy Richardson alternates with Mitrovich in the role of Janis Joplin.