Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Go back in time to experience one night with Janis Joplin

Last night, after weeks of anticipation, we saw the Portland Center Stage world premiere of "One Night with Janis Joplin." I've been looking forward to it ever since I participated in an inspiring voice masterclass with the motivational voice coach Michelle Kopper Seymour earlier in June. A group of six or seven women--most of whom had never met--came together for an afternoon in Seymour's North Portland studio, and we sang our hearts out and cried. (Yes, seriously. I can't imagine men doing the same thing. The wonderful male accompanist was lovely and said not a word.) A few souls were brave enough to attempt Janis songs, but I stuck with the more comfortable "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman."

The class came with a free ticket to the show, and since we already had two tickets, we decided to take Chris along. So last night my parents took the little ones overnight, and we took Chris for dinner at the Deschutes Brew Pub in the Pearl (which Mike loves because of their gluten-free beer and food), followed by a night with Janis.

Honestly, before Portland Center Stage announced its intention to produce this play, I had not listened to much Janis Joplin outside of "Me and Bobby McGee." She died two days before my sixth birthday.

The play, staged like an actual concert with Joplin, blew me away. Cat Stephani, who played Joplin, was simply phenomenal, as was the woman who played the blues singer, Marisha Wallace. Wallace was actually the understudy for Sabrina Elayne Carten, who played the role for the majority of the performances, but they trade off because the roles are so vocally demanding. Wallace played a variety of blues icons--Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin, skillfully channeling each powerful woman. (I've heard Stephani's understudy is also excellent.)

Sanctioned by the estate and family of Janis Joplin, the play focused mostly on her musical influences (the blues) rather than her tragic life. Glimpses remained--such as her frequent swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort and her erratic dancing. But for the most part, the play was about the music. Both singers were backed by a fantastic band and backup singers (who played the roles of Janis and the blues singer during other performances.) Set, staging, costumes, lighting--all reflected the psychedelic era of the 1960s.

Frankly, I'm surprised (or not) by the mean-spirited review by Portland newspaper The Willamette Week, and it just goes to show...theaters should listen to their audiences rather than their critics. The audience ate this music up, and PCS has extended its engagement until early July. (The Oregonian gave a more favorable review.) During the opening night, the audience gave an impromptu standing ovation after "Piece of My Heart," which the Willamette Week critic said the "sheer Glee-ful wrongness of choreographed abandon rang false." Others have faulted the script, which is full of exactly the type of concert chatter one would expect. It was not a typical play--it was a musical experience. Yes, perhaps Stephani was a tad more polished than Janis would have been, but she did an excellent job helping the audience forget she was not really Janis.

My three favorite moments were Janis singing a duet with one of her idols, Aretha Franklin; rocking the house during "Piece of My Heart" (which brought me to tears); and the final number, which she never got to record before she died, "Rockin' My Way to Heaven." Chris, by the way, loved the show too...especially the talented drummer in the band.

If you love music--or just love free-spirited people, you need to see this show. It's open until July 3, and seats are still available. Go back in time and get in the hippie groove.

Joplin broke the barriers for women in rock music. She was truly herself...raw, real, and holding nothing back. I think she would have told the critics to f--k off. And this is what she did say:

“If I hold back, I'm no good. I'm no good. I'd rather be good sometimes, than holding back all the time.”

"I read a story about some old opera singer once, and when a guy asked her to marry him, she took him backstage after she had sung a real triumph, with all the people calling for her, asked, 'Do you think you could give me that?' That story hit me right, man. I know no guy ever made me feel as good as an audience. I'm really far into this now, really committed. Like, I don't think I'd go off the road for long now, for life with a guy no matter how good. Yeah, it's the truth. Scary thing to say though, isn't it?"

"Women to be in-a the music business give up more than you'd ever know. She's got kids she gave up. Any woman gives up home life, an old man, probably, because you're so crazy on planes and runnin' and you never find 'em egain. You give up, you give up a home and friends, you give up children and friends, you give up an old man and friends, you give up any constant in the world except music. That's the only thing you've got man, after you boil it down, the only thing you got left in the world is that music, man. And, so for a woman to sing, she really needs to, or wants to. A man can do it as a gig, 'cause he knows he can get laid tonight."

" be true to myself, to be the person that was on the inside of me, and not play games. That's what I'm trying to do mostly in the whole world, is to not bullshit myself and not bullshit anybody else."

"I always wanted to be an artist, whatever that was, like other chicks want to be stewardesses. I read. I painted. I thought."

"I won't quit to become someone's old lady."

“At my concerts most of the chicks are looking for liberation. They think I’m going to show them how to do it, how to get down. After they see me, when their mothers are feeding them all that cashmere sweater and girdle shit maybe they’ll have a second thought—that they can be themselves and win.”

"You know why we're stuck with the myth that only black people have soul? Because white people don't let themselves feel things."

And this is what others have said about her influence on them:

"Janis was like an angel who came and paved a road white chicks hadn't walked before." "I began feeling proud to be her role model. When I heard her sing, I recognized my influence, but I also heard the electricity and rage in her own voice. I loved her attitude." --Etta James

"I think she allowed women to have their pain. Her thing was so borne from her pain. Her amazing talent was because of the pain she had...I think she was so misunderstood, and she was so intelligent, emotionally intelligent, and what came out of her was almost beyond what her physical body could even do as a singer, and what she was putting across." --Nancy Wilson

"I have a deep, spiritual connection to Janis. And I don't know how, why or when. But, I've always been extremely attracted to her energy, and her pain, and her voice, and her life. I just think she is one of the most amazing women that ever lived." --Pink

"I was just watching the Monterey Pop Festival. When Janis Joplin goes up at the end of Ball and Chain and she kind of cracks on the top note, that's one of my favorite moments in all of music. It's just so much heart that she's belting out into the microphone. I'd rather hear a cracked note by Janis Joplin than anything these American Idol people sing." --Sebastian Bach

"I only saw Janis Joplin one time--on a hot summer day in San Jose, California, at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds...She was extraordinary. She had a connection with the audience that I had not seen before, and when she left the stage--I knew that a little bit of my destiny had changed--I would search to find that connection that I had seen between Janis and her audience. In a blink of an eye--she changed my life." --Stevie Nicks

Going to go get some Janis Joplin music now!

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