Reviewed by Judy Richter
She grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, but blues-rock singer and songwriter Janis Joplin came of musical age during four brief years -- from 1966 until her death of a heroin overdose at age 27 in 1970 -- in San Francisco. She also felt more at home there than she ever had in Texas. Finally, "Love, Janis," the story of her final four years, has reached the city where she gained fame. Judging by the reaction, I'd say many people in the opening night audience had been there to see and hear when it all happened.
Randal Myler, who conceived, adapted and directed the 1994 musical, based it on a book of the same title by Joplin's younger sister, Laura Joplin. The text is entirely in Joplin's own words, straight from long letters she wrote to her family as well as from numerous interviews (Michael Santo is the offstage interviewer). The songs are those made famous by the singer and her bands, starting with Big Brother and the Holding Company, then briefly her own Kozmic Blues Band and finally her Full Tilt Boogie Band.
Joplin's raspy voice and electrifying style can never be fully duplicated, for she seemed to give her all in every song. In fact, she taxed her voice so much that "Love, Janis" uses two singers, who alternate performances. Cathy Richardson was on stage for opening night, delivering a powerhouse performance that comes quite close to Joplin's signature style. She alternates with Katrina Chester.
While Richardson (and Chester) do all the singing, Morgan Hallett does most of the speaking. Sometimes she and Richardson work together, but more often Hallett is on her own, giving Richardson a chance to catch her breath and change into another of Lorraine Venberg's period-perfect costumes. Both Richardson and Hallett are terrific. The text reveals the more private Joplin, who relished her rise to fame yet remained lonely and insecure. Given the free-wheeling tenor of the time and her own vulnerability, it's no surprise that she began abusing drugs and alcohol. A bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey became as much her trademark as her voice and the feathers in her hair.
Richardson is backed by a dynamic on-stage band, assembled by music director Sam Andrew, a founding and still active member of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Band leader and lead guitarist Joel Hoekstra is a rock virtuoso.
The original production was designed by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The set, lighting and projection designs are by Norman Schwab. Using original light show images chosen by Bill Ham, the design features psychedelic light shows in rhythm with Eric Stahlhammer's deafening, pounding sound design.
The songs include some of Joplin's greatest hits, such as "Down on Me," "Piece of My Heart," "Get It While You Can," "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Ball and Chain." "Mercedes Benz," done as an unaccompanied sing-along, opens Act 2 of the approximately two-hour show.
Taken together, "Love, Janis" is a dynamic, interesting tribute to a musical icon of the turbulent '60s and a welcome, nostalgic addition to the San Francisco theatrical scene.