What a review of Love, Janis really needs is a rock critic, not a theater critic. The show at the Denver Center Theatre Company has plenty of hot moments, but works best as a re-creation of Joplin's music, rather than her life.
Nevertheless, Janis lives again. And all of us middle-aged, Woodstock-loving, hard-rocking, anti-Vietnam War-demonstrating, women's-liberating, ex-turn-on-tune-in-drop-out types can relive our wasted youth through her ecstatic music. And it is a rush.
The shock of Joplin's death, like that of Jimi Hendrix's a few weeks before hers, was enough to make many of us rethink our lives--not enough to change them, mind you, but enough to rethink them. A female icon of freedom and license, she represented the wild abandon of rock and the embrace of African-American music by youth of all colors. For me, at least--one whose rock vocabulary admittedly does not extend beyond the Stones--no other white female rocker has ever approached Joplin's sheer visceral energy and stylistic intensity.
It may sound odd to say so, but looking back, Joplin seems positively innocent--or at least naive. She manufactured electricity somewhere inside her and projected it as power. She was a hero to many women because there was so much to her--she was so "out there."
Love, Janis captures much of that power and tries to capture another side of the singer, as well--the other Janis, the private person who wrote home to her mother, pleading for acceptance. The production casts two women to represent Joplin's two sides--one of them is an actress and the other is a singer.
Catherine Curtin, as the private Janis, provides an ongoing monologue in the form of letters home, explaining her career in terms any parent could accept. A male voice projected from the back of the theater becomes a generic rock reporter, asking her questions. Curtin keeps her Janis within a tight range of emotional action and reaction--a highly controlled performance that may or may not be true to Joplin's own behavior, and, in the context of the theater, diminishes the character's power. Eventually, the lilting Texas drawl and the even delivery become a trifle tedious. The audience member longs for the next song.
And when Laura Theodore as Janis the singer delivers the next song, the trip back into the play becomes increasingly difficult to make. The letters and the interviews don't reveal as much about the woman as they should. People who remember the events depicted may be able to read between the lines of the play, but ultimately, too little light is shed on Joplin's life. Somehow, she becomes an archetype, if not a stereotype.
Fortunately, Theodore's portrayal of Janis the rocker is another matter. The singer's excellent interpretation of Joplin's music, while not note-for-note perfect, is alive in its own right--so alive, in fact, that some poor soul in the audience actually yelled out, "I love you Janis!"
At the performance I attended, the audience responded at play's end with nostalgic ecstacy, leaping up collectively for a spontaneous standing ovation. All of us appeared to be recapturing a moment in our youth, remembering all the possibilities that once lay open to us, all the changes we planned to make, all the gusto we would surely grab. In one sense, it was a bit pathetic. In another, though, it was surprising--and wonderful--to have found Janis once again.