Bittersweet Valentine

Love, Janis

Anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of a woman's voice knows that among all the terrors Ulysses encountered, the most dangerous by far were the sirens, alluring women whose voices worked like a swinging pocket watch on men's minds—or maybe more organic parts of the anatomy.

Not so surprisingly, such women can be complicated individuals: sad, lonely, confused. Why else do they turn the stage into their own version of primal therapy, turning themselves inside-out trying to deal with their most private demons in the most public of settings?

For a case study, take Janis Joplin, whose life and music are featured in the musical Love, Janisat the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Those familiar with her meteoric rise to fame are aware of the tortured girl beneath the party-hearty rock singer. The substance abuse, the loneliness, the desperation—all were part of her legacy. And whether you believe that her pain was the engine of her performance or that she was magnetic despite her wounds, the reality is that you can't separate the two.

But Love, Janis, based on Joplin's music and letters, does try to separate the two, with mostly sub-par results. It's part legends show (we get a kick-ass backing band and a phenomenal singer) as well as a narrative through-line that tries to show us the now well-documented other side of Joplin: the lonely little girl from Texas, scorned by her peers and desperate for love and freedom.

Not content with the dramaturgical juxtaposition, Randal Myler, who conceived and directs this show, has drafted a non-singing actress (Amelia Campbell) to play the more sensitive Janis, the one with the dreams and ambitions and demons. Myler's artistic sensibilities are in the right place; it'd be hard to find a fictional character as complicated and dramatic as Joplin. But having two actresses playing the same part just doesn't work. It's awkward and confusing. Many times, the two Janises talk to each other or take turns answering questions from an unseen narrator. But they're not different enough to really carry the concept.

That has nothing to do with talent. Campbell artfully portrays Janis' arc from optimistic dreamer to burned-out junkie drunk. Beth Hart, a professional singer, is an awesome stage Janis. Schooled in the blues and gospel, Hart tears up the bluesier numbers in the Joplin catalog (there are 20 in the show), and while she can't capture the more manic rock screams of Joplin . . . well, who can?

In fact, I would have preferred more Joplin the musician and less Joplin the wounded soul—a choice that would admittedly transform the play into a mere legends show. But the performance is the most enjoyable part of the show. As it currently stands, Love, Janisis a bittersweet valentine to a remarkable performer. If it stumbles over its own self-consciousness, Love, Janisis still a great excuse to see an awesome cover band rip the roof off a theater.

Love, Janis at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, (619) 544-1000. Tues., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Nov. 4. $23-$40.

 
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