Onstage, legendary rocker Janis Joplin was a fearless ball of energy, all raw emotions and soul.
But privately, she was a vulnerable young woman who longed for love and acceptance.
“Love, Janis,” the touring rock musical coming to the Gallo Center for the Arts next weekend, shows both sides of the star. In fact, two women play Joplin in each performance, with one doing the singing and one doing the speaking.
“As a human being, I’m proud to play her,” said 29-year-old Mary Bridget Davies, who alternates with Andra Mitrovich in the singing part. “I think she was a really good person who died way before she should have. It’s an opportunity to show a different side of her.”
Two women are necessary to rotate in the singing part because of its huge vocal demands. Only one woman — Eva Shure — plays the private Joplin in all the shows.
Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin hitchhiked to San Francisco in 1963 to find excitement and relief from the repressive environment in which she grew up. She performed for a while before returning to Texas to escape from drugs.
After a successful audition to join the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin returned once more to San Francisco in 1966. But her hard-partying lifestyle came with a cost — in October 1970, she died at age 27 of an accidental overdose of heroin.
Conceived, adapted and directed by Randal Myler (“Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” recently staged at Sierra Repertory Theatre), the musical is based on a biography of the same name, by Joplin’s younger sister Laura. The 1992 book was inspired by the rock icon’s letters home.
Presented in Modesto by Columbia Artists Theatricals, the show opened in Denver in 1995, ran off-Broadway 2001-03 and has been performed around the country, including in San Francisco in 2006.
“It’s very much a rock show as well as being a piece of theater,” said Davies, who has been playing Joplin on and off since 2005.
Speaking from Austin, Texas, where she is performing now, Davies said that she knew a lot about Joplin from her parents and that she has a strong feeling for the artist’s bluesy, raw music. She hopes to win over any skeptics who doubt an actor can capture the essence of the music icon.
“The biggest challenge for me is proving to the crowd I’m wearing these feathers for a purpose,” she said. “I want to do the best show ever, the most honest show.”
The production opens with Joplin’s smash hit “Piece of My Heart” and includes a slew of other songs, including “Summertime,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Down on Me” and “Ball and Chain.”
Audience reaction to the musical varies depending on where it plays, Davies said. “In San Francisco, as soon as we do the show, they’re freaking out, singing — they know all the words,” she said.
In Kansas City, where the show played to an older audience of season-ticket holders, the response was more subdued and confused. People didn’t know what to make of it. But as the show went on and the word got out to Joplin fans, the reaction improved.
“Love, Janis” appeals not only to Joplin fans but to people who want to remember or learn about the 1960s, Davies said. “It’s a mini little history lesson in the times that were happening,” she said. “She was in the coolest American historical time, being part of the counterculture and being part of that generation.”