WEB EXTRA: Sing out, sister

Posted on 21 Feb 2008 at 9:23am
By Arnold Wayne Jones – Stage Critic

‘Love, Janis’ rocks the Majestic, but three other shows don’t make waves


Janis Joplin

The North Texas theater scene steamed back full force this week, with more shows opening than even a dedicated theatergoer could swing. Along with Uptown Players’ "Bare: A Pop Opera" (reviewed in the print edition of Dallas Voice), the best new show was a musical with a rollicking blues-rock score. I guess two out of five ain’t bad.

The other winner this week technically qualifies as a play: It’s in a theater with a set, and there are actresses reading lines from a script while playing characters other than themselves. But the main attraction of "Love, Janis" is the jaw-dropping musical performance. This is a rock concert gussied up to look like legitimate theater.

Based on the life of Janis Joplin, "Love, Janis" is the quintessential jukebox musical one that not only recycles her best songs, but which is comprised totally from her words. The bisexual rocker gave a lot of interviews in her short career, and wrote tons of letters to her family back in Port Arthur, all of which make up the entirety of the script.

And the show’s director and conceiver, Randal Myler, does a remarkable job pulling together a cohesive if linear narrative of her life, from her early days on the road to her eye-opening successes in the San Francisco music scene of the late 1960s to her sad death from a drug overdose, at age 27, in 1970.

As Janis (played in the spoken-word sections by Marisa Ryan) tells her story in letter-writing monologues and interviews with disembodied journalists her music comes to life with a live band as her alter ego (played alternatively by Katrina Chester and in the performance reviewed by Mary Bridget Davies) blasts her hits like she’s auditioning for a recording contract.

Good as Ryan is at expressing the touching, surprisingly introspective and bookish qualities of Janis, it’s Davies dynamite vocals that get the blood rushing. From the opening chords of "Piece of My Heart," Davies declares herself a vocal doppleganger for Joplin. But rather than just do a cover-band version, Davies digs deep into the passion of the woman called "the Barbra Streisand of the hippies." It’s a jubilant performance of searing energy.

The production is not without its flaws. On opening night, there were numerous lighting, set and musical miscues (at one point, a fixture even fell from the catwalk onto the stage). And the script does not once address Joplin’s bisexuality. But the bluesy versions of "Try," "Ball and Chain," "Me and Bobby McGee" and her other hits more than make up for it. The only thing missing from the show is a mosh pit.

Compare the dynamic power of Joplin’s music to the popcorn pop of Marvin Hamlisch and Carol Bayer Sager’s score to "They’re Playing Our Song" well, there is no comparison. This musical dinosaur from the late 1970s, with its book by Neil Simon, is so dated and stodgy that you wonder why Lyric Stage would revive it. (The original ran on Broadway nearly two years, but even regional revivals have been scarce since the first Reagan Administration.)

It’s not fair to fault its two stars, Paul Taylor and Stacia Goad-Malone, both of who have the ideal temperaments for light musical comedy. You can even overlook the disastrous costumes (which are supposed to be ugly and more than meet expectations) and sluggish direction (Act 1 dragged on for nearly 90 minutes). The problem is the show itself, which lacks the old-fashioned charm of much older warhorses like "My Fair Lady" or "Gypsy." It is so obviously inspired by the real-life relationship between the composer and lyricist that there’s a vulgarness to the insipid way their romance develops; it’s insulting to its source even as it tries to be whimsical.

With only four songs in the second act, we ducked out at intermission. A musical is usually only as good as its score will allow it to be, and the thought of another hour watching these characters feed their codependency smacked of enabling.

At least the quirky characters in "Crimes of the Heart" really are likeable losers, if losers still. Written by Beth Henley shortly after she left Theatre Three in the mid-1970s, this production (directed by Terry Dobson for T3) is as good a production of the play as you could hope for.

But therein lies its weaknesses as well. When it debuted 30 years ago, the character-driven chicken-fried comedy wasn’t as omnipresent as it has become in the intervening span. No one had seen "Greater Tuna" or "Fried Green Tomatoes" or Del Shores’ early work; now, plays about Gothic Southern humor and the oddballs that make up our families are as common as pennies. "Crimes of the Heart" may have been the first, but it wasn’t the last and, in retrospect, is not the best (a Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding).

Henley based her play on Chekhov’s "Three Sisters," and like Chekhov, it’s less about plot than mood and a realistic portrayal of family life. Not much happens in "Crimes," or at least not a lot is resolved. Most of the major action a shooting, an arrest, a suicide, a bedside confession, a flirtation that goes to the next step happens off-stage or before the action even begins; we get character talking about things, but not doing much.

That might be fine, if "Crimes" has more punchy one-liners than it does. It is funny, and the cast makes the most of the material, but there’s just not much there there.


‘Almost Maine’

There’s even less "there" in "Almost, Maine," at WaterTower Theatre. This four-actor, 20-character play seems more like a series of silly standup comedy sketches than a unified single work. And is basically is: In 10 scenes, the majority of the town’s members experience romance, rejection and dashed hopes, eventually all intertwining on each other.

At the preview reviewed, the actors were all well into their game there wasn’t a false note performance to witness. But there was also no authenticity in the writing. The play depends entirely on the gimmickry of literalism: a couple literally waiting for the second shoe to fall; a couple who literally save all the love they give and get from each other in shiny pink sacks; a woman who literally walks around with her broken heart in a paper bag; two men who literally "fall" in love with each other.
If the playwright, John Cariani, were aiming for magical realism or even a mindless, "Airplane"-like ridiculousness, it might have worked. (Maybe he was but just didn’t do it well.) Instead, everything feels one-dimensional it nudges you to "get" it, and seems to want to laugh before you do.

The second act is a definite improvement on the first, with more meaningful scenes well-acted by Lee Trull, Allison Tolman, Kristin McCollum and Russell DeGrazier, but the production is junk-food theater, all empty calories and quick sugar fixes. An hour after it’s over, you’re still hungry.

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