Dallas — Satin gowns and fur stoles meet tie-dye tops and fringe vests in diannetucker’s The Empress and the Pearl, a kind of musical conversation in the hereafter between jazz and blues legend Bessie Smith, played by Denise Lee, and her lifelong fan, psychedelic soul queen Janis Joplin, played by Marisa Diotalevi.
Bruce R. Coleman directs the dual bio-drama, together with music director and pianist Geno Young, in the show’s world premiere production at Theatre Three’s Theatre Too!, their cozy 50-seat basement theater.
It’s Oct. 4, 1970, and Janis Joplin is getting drunk on Southern Comfort in her dimly lit room at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles, where she’s just finished a show. She’s sprawled on the bed, bitching on the phone to her friend that her guy Seth should be with her, although she knows he’s partying in the house she pays for—and probably making it with her friends. Slamming the receiver down, she pours another drink and says, “I make love to 30,000 people onstage, and come home alone.” Looking at her frizzy red hair in a mirror, she tells herself, “You don’t love me.” Sad, mad gal has the blues, but she’s got enough booze and drugs to forget all that. She sets a favorite record spinning and retreats to the bed.
Suddenly the lights go up on the far end of the theater’s narrow rectangular space, and a stunning woman wearing lace gloves and a fancy blue gown trimmed in white fur is shouting to her pianist to get it started, as she launches into “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Janis rouses herself from her drunken funk and staggers in amazement. Bessie Smith, her idol and one of the great blues singers who influenced her, is somehow singing those blues right next to her bed.When beautiful, buxom Bessie takes a long look at skinny, strung-out Janis, she’s shocked to hear she’s so young, “What the hell you been doin'?” she wants to know. Bessie starts to sing, “I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down.” Janice is blissful but incredulous, since Bessie died seven years before Janice was born. “You’re dead,” she tells her visitor. Lee’s boisterous and bejeweled Bessie struts right across the room, pours herself a drink, and says, “Do I look dead?”
In the first act of this two-woman show, Janis tells Bessie about her early life growing up in Port Arthur and how she’s into acid rock, and all the ways she’s rebelled and had a hard life as an outsider. The bits of humor in this chatty replay of Joplin’s personal life and struggle with addiction, are mostly in Bessie’s tough-love responses, “I was a big, crazy loud-mouthed girl all my life,” she tells Janis, and the two sing “Summertime.”
The predicable dialogue, made up of well-known stories of both singers’ lives, is delivered in tell-all girl-talk style. The stories are plausibly linked to the songs, though sometimes it’s a stretch. Janis sings “Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz,” and Bessie tells the story about how she paid cash for a Cadillac, leaving a bunch of snickering white car salesman in the dust of her classy sneer as they go fetch the keys.
By the second act, the two women are recalling their later lives. Janis talks about packin’ 'em in at Threadgill’s in Austin, and Bessie remembers her comeback in Canada. Janis says things like, “All I ever wanted was somebody to love me.” Bessie’s dialogue is less clichéd, but the show is best when the two stop talking and sing the great songs that reflect their feelings.
Before the night is over—and it is the night from which Janis never wakes up—she sings “Little Girl Blue” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” The two ladies drink some more whiskey and team up on a funny, feisty delivery of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
Denise Lee is an effervescent, bossy, jubilant Bessie, ready to knock down or seduce all obstacles, from bigoted white folks to faithless men. hen Lee fills the small theater with a rousing, get-down rendition of “The Memphis Blues” or “St. Louis Blues,” you’ve got to think she’s channeling the Empress directly.
Marisa Diotalevi’s Janis Joplin is a rebellious and emotionally unstable woman who regrets so much more in her life than she celebrates. She stumbled on some of the dialogue on opening night, but evokes the touching vulnerability of her character. Diotalevi captures Janis’ raspy voice and Texas drawl in the bluesy songs, but struggles to project the edgy, all-out vocal power of the hippie-era icon in her famous performances at Woodstock and Monterey Pop Festival.
Despite some awkward patches, the play’s sweet premise that Janis’ idol appears to her when she’s overdosed on heroin works best when Bessie is laughing and cheering on the depressed child-woman. The heartfelt duets of the two singers, miraculously brought together in some great fandom in the sky, are a good trip for the departing queen of acid rock.