Review: Janis Joplin is Alive and Well and Living in SF

By: Aug. 29, 2006
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The first three rows of chairs need to be ripped out of the Marines' Memorial Theatre to make standing-room, because sitting down seems asinine in experiencing the electrifying musical Love, Janis – now playing San Francisco through September 24.

Like a love-letter to a generation, Love, Janis is leaving a significant mark especially in the hearts of San Franciscans – who adopted Janis with open arms in the Summer of Love.  In a sea of baby-boomers, I may have been the youngest person in the theatre, having only known Janis during weekend drives to the beach with my parents.  But for them, Janis represented an era.  Her music grabs you, twisting your veins tight, and pumping them with adrenaline.  As the band blasted "Piece of My Heart," I was transported…and I knew music had never and could never be like it was then!

Inspired by the best-selling book published in 1992 by her sister Laura Joplin, Love, Janis picks up with the blues rocker after she had hitchhiked to San Francisco to join the band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and ends with her premature death just four years later in 1970.  The entire spoken text comes from actual interviews or letters Janis wrote to her family.

Love, Janis is essentially a one-woman show with two women.  Because of vocal demands, on alternating performances the role of Janis Joplin is sung by two talented actresses (Cathy Richardson that evening).  Between bombastic belts by Richardson, Morgan Hallett fills the gaps as speaking Janis.

It'd be near impossible to find someone who exemplified Joplin more acutely and fantastically than Richardson.  Crowned with purple and orange feathers and donning rose sunglasses, she incarnated Joplin like a replicated masterpiece.  Explaining how she personifies this rock-legend, Richardson said "I talked to her…Worked through her…And invited her in."  After intermission, Richardson invites us all in with an invigorating round of "Mercedes Benz".  Also, her rendition of Janis' rendition of the classic "Summertime" was breathtaking!

Meanwhile, Hallett has the responsibility of creating a Janis the public wasn't privy to.  Despite Joplin's private dialogues, a large part of Hallett's performance was the Janis we already knew.  Director Randal Myler strung Janis' letters into a timeline retelling, with few revelations of her deeper motivations and issues found between-the-lines.  Laura Joplin said Janis sometimes wrote home 20-page letters with details on her drug-use and loneliness…yet these facets seemed mulled over.

Near the end of the show, Janis addresses the subject of America wanting their rock and roll artists to be tortured and alone.  But until that point, Hallett was best in finding Joplin's humor, a distraction from what may have been plaguing her internally.  While the letters are important in shaping the whole of Joplin's life, I feel her music provided a better vehicle for expression.

Under the musical direction of Sam Andrew, Big Brother's founding member, the seven-piece band accompanying Richardson truly rocks!  Lead guitarist, Joel Hoekstra, blasts the roof off the building, sometimes playing the strings with his teeth or a beer bottle!

Lorraine Venberg's costume design reproduced some of Janis' original outfits.  Strings of beads and turquoise jewelry provided an entertaining reminder for some.  The twirling psychedelics illuminating the stage, designed by Norman Schwab, served a vital element in this production…yet something seemed lost in translation by utilizing an LCD projector to imitate light shows originally created by mixing colored-oils.

After the performance was a talk-back with Laura Joplin, Hallett, Hoekstra, and Richardson.  Laura deserves praise for preserving her sister's legacy and giving Myler permission to create this project to travel around the country that loved her.  Laura shared the genesis of the novel, when her mother handed her a pile of letters tied with a faded red satin ribbon.  She said, "To read them was to feel Janis again."

Richardson revels in playing Janis, who she described as the "quintessential female rock icon who spear-headed women's music" and the role gives her "the opportunity to kick ass!"  To either relive your days as a flower child or for the best damn history-book recreation of your parents' hay-days, experience the enormous fun of Love, Janis.

Love, Janis is playing at the Marines' Memorial Theatre located at 609 Sutter Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco.  Performances now through September 3 are Tuesday through Friday at 8:00PM, Saturday at 5:00 and 9:00PM, and Sunday at 3:00 and 7:00PM.  The performance schedule from September 5 through 24 is Tuesday through Friday at 8:00PM, Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00PM, and Sunday at 2:00 and 7:00PM.

Featuring: Katrina Chester and Cathy Richardson (Janis Joplin, alternatively), Morgan Hallett (Janis), and Michael Santo (Interviewer).  Conceived, adapted, and directed by Randal Myler.

Tickets are on sale at the theatre box office, by phone at 415-771-6900, and online at and range from $35-67.  For more information visit


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