“Eric Stahlhammer’s sound is to be lauded for keeping the decibel’s at a proper Joplin level without blasting out the walls of the spacious Wilshire Theater.”
(Wilshire Theater; 2,000 seats; $100 top)
Mary Bridget Davies provides the vocals for biotuner ‘Love, Janis’ at the Wilshire Theater.
A Columbia Artists Theatricals & Madstone Prods., in association with TUS & Bartner/Jenkins Entertainment, presentation of a musical in two acts, inspired by the book “Love, Janis” by Laura Joplin. Conceived, adapted and directed by Randal Myler. Music direction, Sam Andrew.
Janis (singing) – Mary Bridget Davies
Janis (talking) – Marisa Ryan
Interviewer – Michael Santo
The rip-the-walls-down vocals of Mary Bridget Davies supply the sharpest moments in the touring Janis Joplin bio-tuner “Love, Janis,” but the bio material, performed with understated folksiness by Marisa Ryan, does not offer enough substance to clarify the self-destructiveness of this troubled genius.
Based on Joplin’s own words through letters and interviews, creator-helmer Randal Myler attempts to meld the dynamic onstage persona of the blues-rock legend with a coming-of-age story of a small-town Texas girl yearning for approval and acceptance. Tuner follows her from Port Arthur, Texas, to her initial June 1966 audition with the San Francisco-based rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, through her four-year ascendance as a drugs-and-alcohol-fueled rock queen. Thanks to iron-lunged Davies, the spot-on musical helming of Sam Andrew (an original Big Brother bandsman) and exquisite backup from the onstage five-member band led by bassist Eric Massimino, this show could stand alone as a tribute concert, sans the dialogue.
Davies (who alternates perfs with Andra Mitrovich) not only projects Joplin’s timbre and onstage physicality, she exudes a sublime musicianship, seamless vocal dexterity and emotional inner fire that relentlessly engulf each of the show’s 18 Joplin classics. Working her through such favorites as “Piece of My Heart,” “Down on Me,” “Summertime,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Turtle Blues,” Davies’ Joplin appears to luxuriate within the music as if she is discovering each tune for the first time.
Davies and Ryan are often onstage together as Myler attempts to smoothly segue from music to narrative. Ryan is often quite engaging and witty but she hasn’t been given enough to work with. Since the text is limited to the singer’s own correspondence and interviews (nicely voiced by an unseen Michael Santo), there is no sense of objectivity and overview into the life Joplin was really living that eventually led to her death on Oct. 4, 1970, in Los Angeles.
The biographical elements are too sketchy to be on an equal footing with the music. The letters reveal Joplin’s aching need for parental approval and love but offer no tangible depiction of the people to whom the letters were sent and no admission of the real demons that were afflicting Joplin’s soul at the time. Her intermittent interviews might be taken from actual transcripts but they expose the singer’s penchant for superficial posturing more than a revealing of self.
Eric Stahlhammer’s sound is to be lauded for keeping the decibel’s at a proper Joplin level without blasting out the walls of the spacious Wilshire Theater.
Sets, Norman Schwab; costumes, Lorraine Venberg; lights, Don Darnetzer; sound, Eric Stahlhammer; bandleader, Eric Massimino; stage manager, Molly M. Legal. Opened, reviewed, May 29, 2008; closes June 1. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MINS.