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Get It While You Can

The Rep's Love, Janis gives us just a little piece of her heart.


As arts patrons file into the new Copaken Stage — the satellite venue for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre that's tucked into the headquarters of the globe-straddling company that botched my taxes two years back — they'll bear witness to a birth and a funeral.

First, that birth — or at the least a christening. The Copaken is a steep staircase of a theater, as green and teak as an Ikea orgasm, where to sit and look down feels a bit like that moment you hang suspended at the top of a roller-coaster's first hill. It's intimate but spacious, and it's just about grand. Best of all, it's tricked out with acoustics like the earbuds of God. (At the Rep proper, people in the back are having trouble hearing King Lear howl.) When the mighty rock band that's been assembled for Love, Janis starts roaring downtown at the Copaken, don't be surprised if the accountant landlords call the police with noise complaints.

Now the funeral. I want to say that Love, Janis, the Rep's careful but thrilling first production in this new space, marks some kind of death: of the last unstomped atoms of the counterculture, of the artistic id unleashed, of whatever remains of our willingness to look at life without someone sweetening it up first.

But these things have been dead since before I discovered they'd ever existed, so I probably mourn alone. It doesn't help my argument that much of the show is thunderingly good — particularly the music — and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that anybody even considering going to this most certainly should go as soon as possible. The finale will have you walking out with your veins on fire.

But they've cut the heroin with NutraSweet. The title itself stings with sweetness: Love, Janis, as though our honky Kozmic Blues Queen were Dear Abby, or Liza at comeback time, or a goddamned Care Bear. A testament to the fact that there's nothing the American musical can't reduce to one-sentence psychology, Love, Janis posits a Janis Joplin who screams and hurts as she does because her mother doesn't understand her and she didn't fit in back in high school.

If that were all it took, every woman I've ever dated would have OD'd years ago.

The bulk of the script is culled from letters that the real Joplin penned to her mother, which is touching and all and, to an extent, a welcome humanization of her dervish legend. But you don't rely on the Christmas letter to tell you the truth about your fuck-up cousins. The result is that Janis, so spiked in real life, is here as smoothed and pleasant as the decorative soaps in my grandmother's bathroom. She gushes about her pets. She suggests that we read The Hobbit. She might mention, once in a while, in the awkward interview segments scattered throughout the play, that she has kicked drugs or that she's no longer trying to kill herself. But we've seen little of this in the show, and we can't help but feel that the real show is taking place somewhere else. As Janis (Lena Kaminsky) recites the letters to us, the show casts the viewer in the role of Janis Joplin's mom, which is not a fantasy of mine. Like mothers everywhere, we're not just shut out; we're fed a line of everything's-fine bull.

In this production, it takes three women to cast Joplin's shadow. The two I saw — Kaminsky as the talking Janis and Mary Bridget Davies as the belting Janis — were excellent. (The third, Kacee Clanton, alternates with Davies.) Stuck reciting letter after letter of Gosh, I'm a rock star!, Kaminsky sometimes runs low on moon-eyed naiveté; fortunately, the darker second act lets her flare to spitfire life. And Davies is a singer of monstrous power.

Ultimately, along with the birth and the funeral, this is an anniversary party. We celebrate something ongoing that's still, somehow, chugging along: rock and roll. The band is raw and strapping (they're all local pros, from bands such as Woo and the Supernauts), and the vocals are white flame. Suddenly, the entire idea of singing with a band is momentous again. "Ball and Chain," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and other songs are so exciting that the rest of the show can't possibly compete. Which may be the muddled thematic point: What in anybody's life could possibly explain this?

The miracle isn't that we get all the reckless spirit that's missing in the show's narrative passages. What's remarkable is that we get all the reckless spirit that's missing in the culture these days.

Janis is dead, and so is the counterculture. But rock and roll is alive, and it lives in the H&R Block Building.

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