Here is a list of my not-so-favorite things, also known as “Why theoretically, I should not have liked One Night With Janis Joplin at the San Jose Rep:” Celebration of 60/70’s drug culture, musicals that don’t have much of a book and instead are just song after song, audience participation, 2 ½ hour shows and last but not least, Janis Joplin. Here is a list of things I really like, none of which appear in this show either: vanilla gelato, big words used correctly and unpretentiously, armadillos, spaceships and Jason Statham. So as you can see list one is all the things presumably a show on Janis Joplin would contain and list two all the things it would not have, and thus the intersection of things I like in this show, should have been zero, resulting in (excuse the pun) a bad trip. This theory however was completely tossed out almost immediately because of the tremendous amount of awesome it possessed. Against odds stacked way against it, this show rocked and I really enjoyed it.
Let’s address list one briefly…
Celebration of 60/70’s Drug Culture: The fact that Janis died at age 27 from a heroin overdose (complicated most likely by alcohol) is never mentioned and Janis’ association to drug culture is absent almost entirely from this show. Her death is only alluded to very minimally. While I went in thinking death and drugs were the big elephant in the room (WE KNOW HOW THIS ENDS!) the show really is set up as a celebration of music, an exploration of Janis’ musical influences (Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to just name a few) and the importance of music, especially for an individual who for whatever reason felt so deeply, was so lonely, and how that music could satisfy her and fill that gap like nothing else.
Musicals that don’t have much of a book: While this show did have some snippets of auto biographical information delivered by Janis directly to us, her audience, there was very little conversation through words that weren’t set to music. This was actually an advantage since the musical talent was essentially mind-blowing across the board. I haven’t seen video of Janis talking so I don’t know if she had a Texas accent or not (she didn’t in this show), I don’t know if the language she used was classically hippie or beatnik, but any more talking and I might not have liked this show as much. While there were a few beautiful and brilliant, poetical insights, particularly in the second half, the conversation was mostly just a set up for the electrical part of this show which was the singing. If seeing Janis live was a fraction as moving and entertaining as this shows numbers were, I would have braved the mud of Woodstock to see her perform. And the ladies playing Aretha, Bessie, Odette, Nina Simone and other influences were just as superb and captivating.
Audience participation: I’m not going to lie, I really hate getting up and clapping in unison and having the audience forced to be part of a show. Escape not engagement is my rule of thumb primarily as breaking that 4th wall is so rarely rewarding for me personally. Perched from the balcony (where I can’t be pulled in usually) I could not escape the music as it were. Fantastic vocals filling that space in the most wonderful ways throughout had me tapping my toes and whooping throughout, treating this show more like a concert than a “dignified theater experience.” I also got a great birds-eye view of the rest of the crowd getting in on the act, leaping to their feet, the feathers from boas occasionally making their own escape to freedom. This music transcends generations and it was a delight to participate.
2 ½ hour shows: The time flew by. I was ready for the show to end, and I certainly had songs I liked more than others, but the timing was paced perfectly and I hardly noticed the length.
Janis Joplin: She died before I was born. She died after a very brief music career and did not have the song book of say Elvis or The Beatles or Sinatra…we are talking a handful of songs that were recorded. This and they were recorded 40+ years ago…that’s right, I did the math…. So the technology, mixing etc. is…well, perhaps more raw, but not necessarily indicative of what audiences were hearing live. This is where our understudy (yes the UNDERSTUDY) schooled me. We can all agree that resonance and that visceral vibration that comes from live music, paired with emotion and interpretation is superior to recorded music, but I have to say, she opened her mouth and she sung those words and she spilled out her soul and I GOT IT. Like, I GOT it, man. I think music CAN articulate emotions in ways that words cannot. Rock and Roll is a dialect of that language, derived from rebellion, angst, fight, heartbreak, soul and hope. I believe rock and roll is in your DNA. From that first riff and that first down beat and that first flash and that first wail…it’s kind of a universal understanding and it’s addicting…in the good way. Aside from the music that brings a feeling of instant community, take the time to read some of the handwritten letters in the lobby from a privileged white Texas girl who acknowledges the fact that she is a disappointment to her parents, but has to sing and figured that part of herself out a lot sooner than many of us. It revealed a human side to an icon I didn’t understand or respect before and now I can.
Now to address briefly, the additional AWESOME: Lights could have been distracting and blinding, but from the balcony at least, I was pleasantly surprised at the Rock concert feel and the groovy projections without feeling they tried to steal the scene. Same for the sound. While I know some may have found it loud, and there were a few balance issues at the top of the show (that got worked out very quickly), I thought 90% of it (again, from the balcony) was perfect!
While I felt Janis’ costume was a bit too formal, a bit too conservative throughout most of the show, the band and our supporting women’s costumes more than made up it. Extra credit for the wigs and the band’s facial hair which both set a mood and had a sense of humor too. At one point two stage hands came out briefly, one in a Beatles shirt and one in Rolling Stones shirt, classic, I wanted to clap just for that detail.
The band was wicked tight and seemed to be having genuine fun together, giving off a JAM-like feel with no obvious “leader” or cues. Very stealthy and very effective.
I think I’m still in shock at all this show (which I had almost written off from the get go) brought. I’m stunned by the depth and the layers and the simplicity and the complexity all at once. Easily 4 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a surprising tribute with out-of-this-world performances and the highest of production values. One Night with Janis Joplin plays through October 6th at the San Jose Rep in Downtown San Jose.