Steven Leigh Morris
RAISING THE DEAD
A Janis Joplin musical boosts the Pasadena Playhouse box office
Writer-director Randy Johnson's musical bio-concert One Night With Janis is breaking records for daily sales, reports the Pasadena Playhouse, the theater where it's now playing. The press release cited March 19 as the day that shattered all records for a single day's sales at the theater, as though selling tickets is an Olympic event.
Perhaps that's not so surprising, given the $100 ticket prices and the lure of Mary Bridget Davies' Joplin impersonation, which has been drawing rave reviews in cities around the country.
The larger question isn't revenue or gross profit but net profit. With five actors and an eight-piece band in an Equity house, One Night isn't a cheap show to produce.
Pasadena Playhouse needs to think this way, emerging as it is from fiscal insolvency, even with its unique audience demographic of old money in Pasadena, South Pasadena, San Marino and Arcadia, intermixed with newer wealth in the hills of Altadena.
Being the official State Theatre of California, the place is a gorgeous edifice, with its ornate Spanish Colonial arches, a fountain in the front, gentle patios, its faux mission-era wooden crossbeams and the grandeur of a history that seeps through the walls, including a training academy that drew the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, Leonard Nimoy and Sally Struthers to study there.
Today, this nonprofit theater clearly is thinking like a commercial one: gambling on a central character who's a baby boomer pop icon (its next show is a new musical adapted from the movie Sleepless in Seattle) and making the strategic decision not to scrimp on production values, rather than following the model that's leaving so many institutions, in the arts and beyond, to die on the vine in their attempts to cut their way to prosperity.
There's an old Russian proverb that Pasadena Playhouse, to its credit, appears to be taking seriously when it comes to the gamble of investing in the future: We really can't afford to save so much money.
The result is an opulence onstage that, with luck, will feed the theater's coffers: a display of musical talent, rock-concert lighting, musical direction that can't be equaled and Davies' spot-on impersonation of Joplin, with her nasal-gravel voice and her husky-nuanced renditions of an array of standards and defining hits like "Mercedes Benz" and "Me and Bobby McGee." The equation's other side of brilliance comes from Kimberly Yarbrough (alternating with Sabrina Elayne Carten), rendering impersonations of Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin that are every bit as accurate and nuanced as Davies' Joplin.
Aside from being a stock bio epic told through song, with Joplin's biographical asides, the production's other thread of a concept derives from the idea that Joplin, a feisty "white chick from Texas," really just wanted to be a black blues singer. This point is driven home by Bessie Smith's "Summertime" from the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, followed by Joplin's reinterpretation. Throughout, between taking quick slugs of whiskey from a bottle, Joplin looks adoringly at images of the black singers she emulated, from the Chantels to Aretha.
The entire spectacle plays out on Justin Townsend's scenic and lighting design, which includes a series of lamps with shades parked on the stage floor. The proscenium comes wrapped in a scarf that looks like a cross between silk and cotton wool. Emerging through the puffery are sticks of light, when needed to transform what may well have been an opium den into the sheen and glare of a rock concert. The larger effects of the drug abuse that cut Joplin's career so short here go unmentioned. Nostalgia has a selective memory.
Aside from this show's unarguably high production and performance standard comes the philosophical question about the power of impersonation onstage and what people in the theater trade call "suspension of disbelief."
It's one thing to see a concert by stars of a former era, say Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, using the infectious power of nerve endings through the songs they wrote and sang and made popular in their youth. It's easy to see how their generation of fans has come through life with them, and lives vicariously through them, singing along in camaraderie, as though to say that through the hardships and indignities of time, we're all still here, of a club. These are words and sounds we continue to share, and will take them to our graves. This is the forging of an identity.
When I was a child in the early 1970s, I remember driving in a car with my dad. On the radio was Joplin singing "Me and Bobby McGee." Without thinking, he flipped the station to his favorite genre, a station specializing in Big Band sounds of the 1940s, the sounds that brought back his youth, that brought him the same comforts of nostalgia to which Joplin now brings the aging audiences of the Pasadena Playhouse. The theater was a sea of gray hair swaying and clapping and singing along to songs Joplin made popular: "Down on Me," "Piece of My Heart," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "Ball and Chain."
But it wasn't Joplin. It was an impersonation, and they were behaving as though Davies were merely a medium for the channeling of Joplin. It was the same retrospective ecstasy as being with the star herself. This transference has become a cottage industry in shows from Jersey Boys to End of the Rainbow (now at the Ahmanson Theatre) to this one.
These are the comforts of idyllic remembrances and associations. These are the diversions that can set box office records in commercial theater and, possibly, hopefully, save such theaters from extinction.
L. A. Weekly's 34th annual Theater Awards, honoring the best work on L.A.'s small stages in 2012, took place April 8 at the Avalon in Hollywood. For a list of the winners, see bit.ly/laweeklyawards.
ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN | Presented by the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 21 | (626) 356-7529 | pasadenaplayhouse.org