By Ron Hockman
May 28, 2011

“All of a sudden, someone threw me in front of this rock and roll band. And I decided then and there that was it. I never wanted to do anything else.” Janis Joplin

The spirit of Janis shines in One Night with Janis Joplin. The play/concert celebrates her life and music, mostly the music. And the music is worth the price of admission. (At Portland Center Stage through June 26.) We learn of the singers who influenced Janis: Odetta, Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin, among others. And like the women she admired, she could be sweet, soulful, sensitive, bombastic, funny, loud, profane, and vulnerable. The genius of Janis was her ability to absorb all these musical influences and transmutate them, like an alchemist, into her own unique and authentic style, for Janis was nothing if not an original.

Using excerpts from her letters, press, and radio and TV interviews, the play loosely traces the events that helped form her: the early years in Port Arthur, her middle-class home life, on first listening to the blues, the Beat influence, the migration to San Francisco, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and on to stardom. The result is a compelling portrait of an artist who, by refusing to compromise her music, became a quintessential icon of the Sixties. Missing from this portrait are the excesses of the self-indulgent Hedonism of the 60’s counterculture. The creator of the show, Randy Johnson, with colleague Jeff Jampol, who represents the estate of Janis Joplin, are clear with their intentions: “If you want to learn about the history of the ’60s, that’s not what this show is really about. If you want to celebrate the music and the joy of Janis, then this is the show for you.”

The stage, outlined with a massive feathery boa as Janis was apt to wear, opens on a rock show setting, but to the side is a Victorian-style couch, as seen on the album cover of Pearl. Amber-shaded lamps casting a soft warm glow surround the couch providing an intimate setting when Janis speaks of her life. When Janis takes the stage, the lighting transforms into the psychedelic projections of a 60’s light show designed by Justin Townsend.

There’s a speaking-Janis who provides narrative and a singing-Janis who, well, sings. Really sings. The speaking-Janis shares glimpes of herself: “I’m a victim of my own insides. There was a time when I wanted to know everything…It used to make me very unhappy, all that feeling. I just didn’t know what to do with it. But now I’ve learned to make that feeling work for me. I’m full of emotion and I want a release, and if you’re on stage and if it’s really working and you’ve got the audience with you, it’s a oneness you feel.” “‘I know no guy has ever made me feel as good as an audience.”

The singing-Janis does what Janis did best – sing with raw, balls-out energy and emotion. For Janis’s performances were nothing if not “full-tilt”; she held nothing back. And Cat Stephani holds nothing back as she brings that raw volcanic energy to her performance. By the end of “Piece of My Heart,” she had the audience on its feet. And in the second half, when she sings “Maybe”…well, you gotta hear it. It takes awhile, but as the play progresses, in an uncanny way Cat Stephani begins to incarnate Janis instead of impersonating her, especially during the haunting, gut-wrenching “Ball and Chain.”

Sharing the stage with Janis is The Blues Singer. Director Johnson explains the Blues Singer as the embodiment of the blues, soul, and R&B singers who influenced Janis. Sabrina Elayne Carten lends her voice to the vocal styles of Odetta, Etta James, Nina Simone, but her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark,” enhanced by terrific background vocalists Moriah Angeline and Marisha Wallace, fueled by the churning, soulful, kick-ass band, not only lifted departed spirits but also lifted the audience to a rousing boisterous appreciation for a stand-out performance by all involved.

The band. Wow, the band. All local Portland musicians. All fine musicians. Stephen Flakus, Mitch Wilson, Ross Seligman, Patrick Harry, Gavi de Tarr, David Milne, Tyler Evans, and Anton Van Oosbree. Go listen to them. Worth the ticket.

Portland Center Stage took a risk in staging the premier of One Night with Janis Joplin. Incorporating a play within a concert can be a tough balancing act, and the snippets of biographical elements are perhaps not strong enough to hold up the dramatic end. There’s a fine line between showy impersonation and genuine homage. Although there were brief moments of flashy theatricality, the play never lapsed into the kitsch of a juke box musical; instead, One Night with Janis Joplin succeeds because it remains true to the spirit of the music, and by remaining true to the spirit of the music remains true to the spirit of Janis. The music is the center of Janis’s power as an artist, and that really is what her legacy is all about.

Performances of One Night with Janis Joplin run through June 26, 2011. Performance times are Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30 pm, with matinees at 2:00 pm on Sunday and some Saturdays, with some Thursday matinees at noon. Tickets start at $36 for full adult prices, with student and under age 30 discounts available. Rush tickets may be available for some performances at $20 each. For a full calendar of performances and ticket availability, visit the show page at www.pcs.org/janis.