Director – Bruce R. Coleman
Music Director/Pianist—Geno Young
Lighting Designer—Bryan S. Douglas
Scenic Painter—David Walsh
Properties Master–Kat Edwards
Janis Joplin—Marisa Diotalevi
Bessie Smith—Denise Lee
Reviewed Performance 4/10/2016
Reviewed by Genevieve Croft , Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It seems like a dream. Being in the presence of legendary singer-songwriter Janis Joplin, and early Blues musician Bessie Smith. It almost was a dream. For a short time, audiences will be able to experience what it might have been like for Janis Joplin, who was visited in her final hours by the spirit of her idol, Bessie Smith. Although from different times, they are strangely connected- the two women realize the impact that they have made on the world, and the through the power of music tell their story to the world. Not only will audiences learn a little bit more about Texas-born Janis Joplin, and the story of Bessie Smith, but, audiences will also experience the world-premiere of this production, written by celebrated local playwright, Dianne Tucker.
Director Bruce R. Coleman brought together two fantastic actresses who worked well together, and collaborated with a crew who clearly took their jobs seriously and knit together scenery, lighting and costumes that enhanced the story being told by these two powerful and soulful singers. His overall vision and concept was very impressive. The actresses were so fully charged with energy- it really was an upbeat and fun afternoon at the theater. From the moment the show began, members of the audience were drawn into the final hours of Janis Joplin’s life on October 4, 1970-at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood.
The intimate studio space of Theatre Too in in the basement of Theatre Three was successfully transformed into the motel room where Janis sadly spent her final hours. It was everything that I would expect to see in a motel room in 1970-the hold-over designs and interiors of the late 1960’s. I was absolutely in love with the small details- like the hanging gold flower lamp adorned with one of Janis’ silk scarves, and the small “listening” lounge complete with portable record player, and Janis’ collection of vinyl LP’s of artists influential to her career. In a story with one location, I was very impressed with the bright use of colors, and the simplicity of the location on stage. I have never been to the Theatre Too space before, and I was impressed with the intimacy that the space provides to audience members. It truly does allow you to get up close and personal with each of these characters, and to transport yourself right into the world of the play. It is apparent to me that a lot of research, time, care, and attention to detail was incorporated from the scenic designer.
Lighting was designed by Bryan S. Douglas. Douglas did a fantastic job plotting lighting that was appropriate for each scene and mood. In a production with one location, there were subtle lighting changes that would elevate and enlighten the theme and mood of each moment. It was lively, and aesthetically pleasing. I was impressed by the “OT” illuminated and visible through the hotel window, as a part of the world “hotel.” It was another one of those added touches that would have been missed if it had not been present. Through the performance, Douglas’ cuing to enhance each scene was spot on. I especially enjoyed how the lighting complimented the scenic design, allowing the scenic and the lighting elements to work in collaboration. One final note regarding lighting, throughout the second half, one light was flickering on and off as it was apparent that the end was coming for Janis Joplin. This was mirrored in Bessie Smith’s narrative, as she spoke of the end of her life. I thought that this was certainly a symbolic and powerful visual-symbolizing that there spot light was slowly going on-what a lovely analogy and comparison of two great female singers. It is apparent that Douglas really devoted a lot of time, effort and talent in the lighting of this production.
Costumes were not only period appropriate to both women, but had a fine attention to detail. I am very much an aficionado of the 1960’s counter-culture style, and I loved Janis’ quintessential leather fringe vest, to her peace-sign and love bead necklaces. I was in heaven! I was also very impressed with Bessie Smith’s satin blue dress complete with flapper pearls, and a feather adorned hat. Both were visually pleasing, and were very indicative of the time period.
Marisa Diotalevi was incredibly believable in the role of Janis Joplin. Through facial expressions, body language, and even her vocal delivery, Diotalevi convincingly portrayed the twenty-seven year old also known as “Pearl.” It was just as if Janis has been reincarnated on stage Sunday afternoon. I am certain that Ms. Diotalevi spent many hours researching and viewing footage of Joplin. Ms. Diotalevi’s enthusiasm and honesty on stage was a very true depiction of the young singer-songwriter. She never faltered in her delivery, and all interactions with idol Bessie Smith were believable and spot on. Ms. Diotalevi had an incredible stage presence and a lovely, honest sense of humor and interaction with Smith. Not only did she have vocal delivery, but, even her singing voice so closely mirrored Joplin. Often times, I feel that when actors or actresses attempt to portray someone in the public eye, I am disappointed. I suppose I have so much reverence for the person that I do not wish to see them portrayed in an unreal way. However, this was certainly not the case this time. Ms. Diotalevi’s performance was as close to seeing Janis Joplin as I will ever be able to see.
Sharing the stage with Ms. Diotalevi was Denise Lee in the role of Joplin’s Blues idol, Bessie Smith. Words can hardly describe the magnitude and power that Ms. Lee brought to the stage. Her larger-than-life depiction of Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues,” was exactly what I would expect from her character. I had little background knowledge of Smith prior to seeing this production. Now, I can say that I am a fan of Smith’s music, and that is largely due to Ms. Lee’s knock-out performance. Her full-bodied, and dynamic voice quickly filled the room with some of Smith’s greatest hits. Ms. Lee had a wonderful since of comedic timing, and her interaction with the audience exemplified her magnetism on stage. Because of Ms. Lee’s stellar performance, I immediately went home and found a compilation of Smith’s signature tunes and purchased it.
This production of The Empress and the Pearl is definitely worth seeing. The attention to detail evident in all aspects of this production makes for a satisfying experience. From the moment the story begins, you will be saddened to experience Janis’ last lonely hours with her. Not only is it an excellently designed and accurate depiction of Janis Joplin, but also, it is an excellent musical history lesson. As audiences learn about Bessie Smith “The Empress of the Blues,” and Janis Joplin “Pearl,” you will be left wanting to know what might have happened ‘if’ their lives had not been taken away in the prime of their musical careers. It’s an exceptional depiction of two kindred spirits who had never met on this Earth. Yet, somehow they are connected in more ways than one.
THE EMPRESS, THE LADY AND THE PEARL, PART ONE
THE EMPRESS AND THE PEARL
Theatre Too (Theatre Three’s downstairs studio theatre)
Theatre Three Dallas/2800 Routh Street, Ste. 168, Dallas, Texas
Runs through May 1, 2016.
Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:30pm
Ticket prices are as follows:
Single tickets range from $35-40
$3 off: seniors
$3 off each ticket for groups of 10 or more
$10 T3 community tickets (faculty/staff/alumni)
$15 student rush (valid ID required)
For info/tix: www.Theatre3Dallas.com or call: 214-871-3300 (select option #1).