“True artists live basically doomed lives,” says Sophie B. Hawkins, starring as Janis Joplin in Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin.
This new musical at the Mujeres Advancing, Culture, History and Art Theatre in West Hollywood uses Joplin’s original songs to examine the complex relationship between Janis Joplin, world-famous rock star and iconic hippie and the Janis crippled at a young age by severe insecurity.
It’s fitting, then, that this piece is set, as the program explains, “in the mind of Janis Joplin’s spirit, which has come back 42 years after her death.” Set designer Douglas D. Smith renders Joplin’s psyche as the quintessential hippie den, full of draped purple velvet, an abundance of feather boas, a lava lamp, trunks full of her band’s touring equipment, bottles upon bottles of Southern Comfort and her own gravestone (which she never addresses but frequently sits on).
Janis’ wardrobe similarly evokes all things psychedelic, and the way Hawkins swaggers around in her tight velvet bellbottoms, chunky jewelry, tie-dyed top and renowned orange-tinted glasses will have you itching to raid every thrift store on Melrose. Her look is bolstered by perpetual bare feet and masses of wavy hair that are so voluminous they border on dreadlocks. The small ensemble wears costumes representative of other fashion movements of the era: One of the women wears a black and white minidress and fishnets, while another wears a boldly printed maxi dress with a matching bandana looped around her afro.
Though the set and costumes effectively transport you back to the ’60s, nothing about this musical feels dated. While it’s true that most of the audience members probably remember Janis performing live at Woodstock in 1969, a turbo-charged performance by Hawkins and her groovy back-up band will keep any viewer’s head bobbing.
Beginning with “Piece of My Heart,” which opens the show, the band rips through electrifying renditions of Joplin’s biggest tracks. No fan of her music will be disappointed — every hit is accounted for, including “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Down on Me” and “Ball and Chain.” And though the band remains semi-hidden behind a black screen, its power is easily palpable. Guitarist Josh Sklair, who sports a rainbow tie-dye shirt and shoulder-length gray hair, channels all the guitar greats of the ’60s, shredding his solos with precision and maintaining an impressive sense of timing with Hawkins and her vocals. Drummer Corey Coverstone and bass player Daniel Pearson provide a solid rhythm section, as well.
But the success of the musical numbers should be attributed to Hawkins. Her voice, though not a dead-ringer for Joplin’s, possesses that same throaty quality that made Joplin a star. The combination of Hawkins’ spectacular range and pitch accuracy allows her to take a lot of melodic risks that pay off; she has fun with her phrasing, bending and sliding into her big notes, but never wanders out of key. And it doesn’t hurt that she has a killer rock‘n’roll scream. Hawkins’ vocal talent should come as no surprise, considering she is a successful singer-songwriter herself, having been nominated for Best New Artist at the 1993 Grammys and landing a few of her singles on the Billboard charts.
Hawkins, however, boasts more than just a pretty voice. Her resemblance to Janis also appears through her movement and line delivery. Hawkins shuffles around the stage like her slender body is on the brink of exploding from all of the creative energy that’s bouncing around inside it. She flails her arms and leaps around with manic grace — minus a few moments when she teeters to the edge of her balance and looks as if she might fall off the stage, creating a nervousness in the audience that is probably reminiscent of watching the real Joplin drunkenly perform.
Similarly, her delivery falls exactly in line with what you might imagine a hippie sounds like. Her words sort of slur together, a lot of sentences begin with, “Hey, man,” and it’s clear that she relishes phrases like “free love” and “I’m so high!” Consequently, because she does such a great job of playing the archetypal hippie, there are a few moments when you might be tempted to deem Hawkins’ performance as corny or caricature-y. Keep in mind, though, this is appropriate, because Joplin really is the model off of which many base the hippie stereotype.
The dramatic arc of the musical is the only weak point of the production. Though the content about Joplin’s lifelong insecurities and inability to satisfy her need to belong was very compelling, it should have been presented differently. Since the title of the piece refers to the hotel room in which she died (of an heroin overdose at the age of 27), you’d think the playwright would have spent more than five minutes at the end of the play discussing Joplin’s death and legacy.
When it comes down to it, if you’re a fan of great live music, you’ll definitely enjoy an evening of Joplin’s finest. Even if you aren’t a Janis fan yet, her story will lead you to think about your favorite rock stars in a different light.
Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin runs through Nov. 25 in West Hollywood at the Macha Theatre.