Janis Joplin may have died in 1970, but Portland Center Stage is striving to keep her spirit alive. In One Night with Janis Joplin, PCS has resurrected the legend of the self-described “white chick singing the blues,” offering her fans the impossible: a second chance to experience the power of her live performance.
Developed by Randy Johnson in collaboration with Janis’ siblings, Laura and Michael Joplin, One Night is a tribute concert hemmed in by a narrative flow (and a massive wreath of colored lights and tulle). With a band standing behind her and images of memorabilia projected on a screen as she speaks, Janis (Cat Stephani) shares her life story, feeding intimate biographical details to die-hard fans: She spent Saturday afternoons cleaning her house to a soundtrack of showtunes. She took odd jobs as a teen. She painted (and the images of the paintings are projected onscreen.) Interspersed with these detailed anecdotes, are philosophical musings about the blues. “People like their blues singers miserable, they like their blues singers to die afterwards,” says the implausibly prescient singer. (It’s almost like she knows!)
This role puts Stephani in a sensitive position: with every flip of her hair, every pause and phrase, every squawk and murmur and scream, she either reinforces or debunks audience preconceptions about a rock hero. She tries her best to match Janis’ gravelly voice and raspy cackle, but her classically-trained voice is too smooth and pretty to allow for direct imitation. Stephani most closely approximates Janis on the high notes, where her power shines through and her emotional delivery provides the rawness that will satisfy seekers of a Janis-like sound. Because she’s consistent within her own interpretation of the character, as the show wares on the audience gradually accepts the “new” Janis, and opens up to the character’s vulnerable, intimate side. “I know no guy has ever made me feel as good as an audience,” Stephani confesses with a low hum of sexuality that makes the crowd blush.
Sabrina Elayne Carten performs alongside Stephani as The Blues Singer, embodying the musical influences Janis adored (Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone). Carten’s show-stealing voice and captivating physical presence feel steadier than Stephani’s attempts to channel Janis’ physicality. Carten also gets the best getups; the white fringe number that she wears while portraying Bessie Smith drawing gasps from the audience.
The final song, “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven,” was written by Jerry Ragovoy for Janis, and when the character mentions it she turns to her guitarist. “We’re gonna record that one real soon, yeah?” She never did.
In the singer’s own words, “It’s the want of something that gives you the blues. It’s that hole, it’s the vacuum.” Ultimately, amid the triumph of the tribute show, the tragedy of the loss looms even larger.