The Oregonian

By Grant Butler

May 28, 2011

In the decades since her untimely death in 1970, the legacy of rock singer Janis Joplin has faded significantly. Several attempts to turn her life story into a feature-length film or a documentary have fizzled. And her raucous music, which used to be everywhere, is rarely heard today, even on classic rock radio stations.

The singer’s estate hopes to change those fortunes with the new stage show “One Night With Janis Joplin,” a theatrical concert that had its world premiere Friday at Portland Center Stage.

The production features a whopping 25 songs, many of them Joplin signatures, interspersed with a handful of numbers showcasing how the singer was artistically influenced by blues singers like Bessie Smith, Odetta and R&B diva Aretha Franklin.

Channeling Joplin is Cat Stephani, who is a riveting presence standing behind the microphone belting out spot-on renditions of “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz,” and “Turtle Blues.” Stephani captures Joplin’s mannerisms perfectly, stomping and swaying across the stage, flipping her frizzy hair with an almost reckless abandon. At times she’s so convincing you almost forget that this is an actress and not the real thing. Her rendition of “Piece of My Heart” was so rousing on opening night, it prompted a mid-show standing ovation.

Between songs, “One Night” offers moments of quiet reflection with introspective stage banter that reveals Joplin’s simple and, at times, almost child-like outlook on the world. The dialogue doesn’t always work, yielding only a faint impression of Joplin beyond her songs. But several tender moments — such as a story about how the music of Nina Simone helped her better understand her sister and herself — highlight the singer’s fragility.

Other small touches in the production hint at Joplin’s tragic fate without expressing it overtly. Whiskey bottles are tucked throughout the set, and Stephani repeatedly takes deep swigs from them, enabling the sort of drunken song renditions that proved so riveting in the 2003 documentary “Festival Express,” which captured some of Joplin’s last alcohol-fueled performances in the months before her heroin overdose.

Joining Stephani on stage is Sabrina Elayne Carten, who portrays mystic versions of Joplin’s musical guiding lights. Carten shows an amazing vocal range, offering an operatic rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as well as a gospel take on Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark.”

Backing Stephani and Carten are a pair of full-throated backup singers and an eight-piece band, re-creating the unique sound of Big Brother and the Holding Company, which Joplin fronted in the late ’60s, as well as the bands that she created after going solo.

Two elements of the production’s design really stand out. The lighting by Justin Townsend uses large backdrops to create moving psychedelic paintings, and bathes the Gerding Theater audience in collages of blue. And Jeff Cone’s costumes capture Joplin’s unusual approach to accessorizing, complete with bangles of jewelry and rainbow-colored feather boas streaking from her hair.

“One Night” was created, written and directed by Randy Johnson in association with Joplin’s surviving family members and Jeffrey Jampol, who manages the estates of other deceased rockers from that era. After this premiere, there are hopes to mount other productions elsewhere. That seems plausible with a little bit of tinkering. The show needs some tightening – it runs nearly three hours – and the dialogue could use some sharpening to offer a better window into Joplin’s soul.

As far as musical performances go, though, Stephani nails it. If you never got the chance to see Joplin live or on film, this feels as close as you’re going to get.

‘One Night With Janis Joplin’

When: Continues 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (except May 29), and at noon June 2 and June 9.

Where: Portland Center Stage’s Gerding Theater main stage, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

Tickets: $36 and up, 503-445-3700 or online.