JOPLIN TRIBUTE NEEDS TO TRY, NOT A LITTLE BIT, BUT A LOT HARDER
42 years ago, Janis Joplin joined fellow rock visionaries Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones in the “27 Club,” a term reserved for popular musicians who died tragically at 27 years of age—typically by way of drug-related overdose (Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse are more recent additions). What cements these artists as everlasting icons is a combination of three things: Their peerlessness in their time, their exceptional output, and the perception that if they had lived longer they would have attained greater greatness. Death protects their legacy from the lesser work they might have later produced, and shields it from public apathy by taking them at the height of their popularity.
However, there are numerous, less-talented, self-seeking scavengers looking to cash in on the fascinating lives of these tremendous, distinctive artists. Instead of making something extraordinary and gripping that honors the legacy of those in the “27 Club,” projects such as Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin, now playing at the Macha Theatre, are poorly realized, psychedelic, meandering concerts masquerading as musicals. This one stars Grammy nominee Sophie B. Hawkins as the iconic blues-rock songstress endearingly referred to as Pearl.
Room 105 takes place in the mind of Janis Joplin’s spirit, arriving forty-two years after her untimely death. Writer/Director Gigi Gaston strays from coherent storytelling and delivers a ninety-minute stream-of-consciousness piece equal to reading aloud a memoir in a heightened setting. The result is a lugubrious, stilted performance piece that neither honors the legacy of Janis Joplin nor illuminates the singer’s tragic life.
Ms. Hawkins bears the burden of carrying the entire show as the charismatic, gregarious, tortured icon. To accomplish such a Herculean feat, one must not only be a good singer and a good actor, but a great singer and a great actor. Does her voice have the necessary range and power to sing Janis Joplin? Yes. Does she have the acting chops required to embody and personify Janis Joplin? No. Not even close. On the songs “Try” and “Summertime,” she manages to make it work quite well, but overall, the vocal performances remain too internalized, and less engaged with the audience than what was evidenced by the real-life Pearl at Woodstock, say, or on the Dick Cavett Show. Hawkins also needs more rehearsal: she drops lines, corrects lines, and is ultimately lost as a result of not being properly invested in her character; she fails to inhabit the soul of Janis Joplin, and similarly fails to represent her image: Pearl was a fuller woman with brown hair who boogied and grooved, but Hawkins, with her blonde hair and slender figure, dances like Tina Turner. If any homework was done, it does not materialize on stage either for Hawkins or for her supporting cast, who also portray real-life personalities (at least the rest of the ensemble has memorized their lines).
Without a doubt, the best part of the show is the band: Josh Sklair on guitar, Corey Coverstone on drums, Ed Roth on keyboard, and Daniel Pearson on bass. They play extremely well and retain the ephemeral vibrancy that was the trademark of Janis Joplin’s bands. Robert Brinkerhoff’s sound design is tremendous—appropriately loud, and the music well mixed—sounding identical to the recordings. Douglas D. Smith’s delicious stage design lures the audience with its psychedelic backstage environment filled out with road gear cases, feather boas, lava lamps, a happenin’ cot, and two hanging flatscreen TVs that showcase Brian Brinkerhoff’s groovy kaleidoscopic visuals. Smith and Steven Pope’s lighting work is colorful and engaging with its purple and pink schemes, and seamlessly augments the somber moments by creating a stark and intimate atmosphere. Leslie Sank’s costume design is faithful to the period, but apart from that, surprisingly bland.
The person responsible for this dreck is writer-director Gigi Gaston. The choice to use a singer (and not an actress) to play Janis Joplin is a risk that doesn’t pay off. While the band is hot and the stage is eye-candy, the weak meandering writing has given birth to even weaker acting. Gaston gives us an aimless acid-trip through Janis Joplin’s career, covering territory a mile wide but an inch deep. It is more concerned with getting to the next song and making jabs at the culture of 2012 than it is in sophisticated commentary or purposeful poignancy. There’s no “Magic of Love” with this “Ball and Chain,” so it’s “Bye-Bye, Baby.”
photos by Ed Krieger
Room 105 The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin
presented by Tommy Thompson & Colleen Camp with Macha Theatre
at the Macha Theatre in West Hollywood
scheduled to end on October 21, 2012 EXTENDED through November 25, 2012
for tickets, 323-960-1055 or http://www.room105musical.com