Portland Center Stage, inexplicably determined that its final show of the season pay tribute to a long-deceased blues belter of dimming celebrity, decided mid-season to shelve the originally scheduled Love, Janis and host instead the global premiere of One Night With Janis Joplin. This newest iteration, like Love, Janis a family-sanctioned glimpse of a less-than-compelling tale, was written and directed by Randy Johnson, architect of a remarkably successful Elvis Presley facsimile concert—but there's a reason Joplin impersonators haven't quite made careers.
It is faintly bizarre to mount a production dependent upon replicating the charms of a woman always more influential than iconic, whose legend rests upon inimitable eccentricities, and it's near perverse to flesh out the performance with vague artistic elaborations. The effect's like picking up a sun-damaged Big Brother LP at a yard sale and receiving a detailed provenance of vinyl ownership alongside; the scuff marks may add atmosphere, but some mysteries are best left unexplored.
The playwright's decision to embrace theatricality at the expense of celebrating the ineffable led to the most intriguing element of the show: Silhouetted above or standing beside our heroine, amid a set decorated like the karaoke lounge at High Times casino, the Blues Singer (Sabrina Elayne Carten) appears to embody mythic inspirations and give voice to young Janis' fave tunes, with a notably better voice than was allowed the Janis character. Cat Stephani does her best with the title role, but, as she trades a wearying 25 songs with Carten, the disparity in talent colors perceptions. Despite a preternatural facility for soul music, Janis' moments of rapture came from an unselfconscious delight in her own powers impossible for any actress to more than suggest.
Comic touches fell flat opening night as the crowd was left wondering whether laughter seemed cruel, and they cheered on the staple hits as they would a troubled daughter's recital. The summer-stock-rawk rendition of "Piece of My Heart" moved the well-heeled audience-of-a-certain-age to stand and sway like dowager night at the Apollo, but the sheer Glee-ful wrongness of choreographed abandon rang false: Joplin's transcendent sneer replaced by spunk, the anarchic warrior recast as group-hug object. Legacy's just another word for nothing left to lose.
SEE IT: Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturdays-Sundays. Closes June 26. $38-$63.