Janis Joplin was a force of nature. Since her untimely demise in 1970, few singers have approached her raw emotion and urgency. The Joplin legacy is huge, and revisiting her legendary recordings reveals an intense, often scary, scorched-earth approach to rockin' blues. Joplin is a true icon, not only because her singing transcended mere vocal performance, but also because her hippie-chick imagewaifish, outlandish, fueled by alcohol and drugswas apparently as genuine as the pathos and loneliness that were masked by her star status.
Joplin was the real thing, which is why the recent Hollywood rumblings of biopics about herone featuring pop star Pink, the other starring Rene Zellwegerare almost frightening to consider. Zellweger's efforts have been stymied by the Joplin estate, which won't allow use of actual Joplin recordings. Meanwhile, director Penelope Spheeris is reported to be totally enthusiastic about Pink's prospects for realistically copping the Joplin style. Lotsa luck to all involved.
Joplin lives on vividly in memory and music. Web site devotion to her is ubiquitous, and there have been numerous tribute-band approaches to her work. Kozmic Blue, now playing on Saturday evenings through July 17 at Bongo After Hours Theatre, might best be categorized as an appreciation. Wisely, there is no attempt here to exactly mimic Joplin's raw-boned vocals. Yet therein lies the rub.
Singer-songwriter Donna Frost is a professional folk-pop artist with a lot of experience, as well as heartfelt admiration for Joplin. The latter comes through clearly in her performance as the rock star, captured mainly via a re-creation of a radio interview conducted Oct. 3, 1970, barely a day before Joplin's death from a drug overdose. With script adapter/director Ron Cushman, in the role of longhaired New York deejay Wild Bill, pitching her questions, Frost becomes a boa-bedecked mouthpiece for all things Joplin, roaming spacily through family, friends, career, lifestyle, dreams and hard personal realities. The factual revelations and reminiscences are finemusic-industry names like Albert Grossman, Jerry Garcia and Ralph Gleason pop upand Joplin fans, both old and new, will appreciate the replaying of such a frenetic and tattered life. Additionally, it's interesting to hear of Joplin's influences, including Leadbelly, Odetta, Otis Redding and Bessie Smith.
Frost also sings selections from the deified's oeuvre. She gets an "A" for effort, to be sure, yet her pleasant voicesuitable for less-demanding materialonly occasionally touches us with the Joplin spirit. Lighter tunes like "Mercedes Benz" and "Me and Bobby McGee" work to a degree. But when Frost launches into hardcore stuff like "Cry Baby," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "Ball and Chain"backed by authentic-sounding if karaoke-like trackswe're really only reminded of how much we miss the original and what an impossible task it is to even attempt this feat.
The nostalgia pull of the tuned-in, turned-on '60s is the strongest thing this show can offer, and it has its satisfying moments on that level. But the problem with watching someone impersonate Janis Joplin is that, even with lowered expectations, you still want her to sound pretty much like Janis Joplin. Because nothing else will really suffice.
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