Sophie B. Hawkins channels Janis Joplin's spirit in 'Room 105'

Twirling her microphone stand like a demon lover while her Medusa curls lash her face, Sophie B. Hawkins is a woman possessed.

On the tiny Macha Theatre stage in West Hollywood, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter is getting in touch with her inner Janis Joplin. That might not seem like a stretch for Hawkins, who cut an audacious swath through '90s adult-contemporary music with erotically obsessive confessionals such as "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" and "Right Beside You."

During a rehearsal break from "Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin," a new musical play written and directed by Gigi Gaston that runs through Dec. 30, Hawkins gratefully acknowledged Joplin's raging influence on her own music. But she also conceded the emotional toll of giving audiences another little piece of your heart every time you open your mouth.

"Janis has in many ways taught me to sing with much more conviction," said Hawkins, still dressed in her stage clothes: a Haight-Ashbury hippie-chic ensemble of purple feather boa, peasant blouse and skintight trousers that stretch to her bare feet.

"I've had always a lot of guts about being on stage and improvising and reaching for something new," she continued. "And that we have in common, of never wanting to be in the same place every night on a song. She thinks in terms of every vowel means something, every consonant. She's really intense. And it would've been hard to be Janis with that intensity."

Just how hard it was for Joplin to be Janis — a small-town Texas girl whose aggressively earthy rasps evoked the erotic candor of 1920s Harlem blues queens; a high school pariah who reinvented herself as a rock 'n' roll diva of raw sensuality — is a major theme of "Room 105." It's also a key part of the mythology that has enshrouded Joplin since she was discovered in Room 105 of the former Landmark Hotel on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood on Oct. 4, 1970, dead of a heroin overdose.

The play's premise is that 42 years later Joplin's spirit has emerged from purgatory and re-materialized in Hawkins, eager to re-set the record of her life and re-engage with problematic figures like her mother (played by Lou Mulford) and her lover Peggy Caserta (Bonnie McMahan). The four-man band, led by guitarist Josh Sklair, will back Hawkins' vocals on roughly a dozen Joplin classics including "Down on Me," "Piece of My Heart" and "Me and Bobby McGee."

Sklair, a longtime collaborator of Etta James, said he has watched a transformation come over Hawkins as she delved deeper into her character.

"A lot of the stuff was already there as far as the passion, the soulfulness and the wild abandon," he said. "I see her just hurl herself into the role."

Hawkins' kamikaze attitude also appealed to Gaston, a screenwriter and filmmaker who made Hawkins the subject of her 1998 documentary "The Cream Will Rise."

In the decades since her death, Joplin has tempted numerous female singers to channel her flailing, fearless stage persona, most notably Bette Midler in the 1979 feature film "The Rose." Gaston said that she wrote "Room 105" with Hawkins in mind from the get-go.

"I've worked with her [Hawkins] for so long, and everyone's always said, 'You have so much Janis in you,'" Gaston said. "Even Bob Dylan said that to her once, and Don Henley. When I was shooting this documentary on Sophie in 1996, Don Henley came up to her and said, 'You're so Joplin!'"

As a writer, Gaston said, she also was intrigued by Joplin's demons and her lifelong struggles to overcome them. "She was called 'the ugliest man' in college. Imagine what that's like. She was oinked at in assembly in high school."

Only after as she became a rock star did Joplin begin to exert a sexual pull over men and women alike. "Room 105" wrestles with the singer's ambivalent sexuality which, like her drug use, yielded painful confusion as well as ecstatic liberation. "I was addicted to men," she declares at one point in the play, "but I loved women."

"Janis Joplin did not believe in labels," Gaston said. "She thought labels limited us: bi-, straight, gay or metro."

Hawkins said she related to Joplin's determination to choose her own sexual identity regardless of other people's wishful projections or attempts to classify her. "I've had very deep relationships with at least one man, for years and years, and have obviously relationships and a longtime partner with a woman," she said. "So I really understand Janis, that you can totally be bisexual. It's not a lie, it's not a contradiction, it's the soul of the person."

Hawkins also identified with Joplin's attempts to wrest control over her artistry in the face of the music industry's conformist pressures. Hawkins said that Joplin's record-label overseers ultimately persuaded her to leave her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, thereby letting go of a crucial emotional anchor and cutting herself off from the group's take-no-prisoners, proto-punk energy.

"You do your first record, you have success, but never enough success," Hawkins observed. "So then the record company tells you, 'Well, you know, we love you but this is what you gotta change so you can be really successful.' They said, 'Get rid of this, get rid of that, get rid of everything, and put on a short dress' — in my case be Mariah Carey or whatever. And in her case it was, 'Get rid of Big Brother.' And to me that was the beginning of the end. Because she found her whole sound with them."

Given its brevity and highly publicized pitfalls, Joplin's life has been framed as a tragedy. But in at least one sense, Hawkins suggests, it may provoke a certain envy among musicians today. Freedom may be just another word for nothing left to lose, as "Bobby McGee" has it.

But for an artist like Joplin and others of her generation — including several who burned bright and flamed out early — creative freedom was the essence of an era in popular music that feels increasingly distant.

"I think it was easier to be an artist" then, Hawkins said. "And I think that was a great freedom that those artists opened up for us. You didn't have to be Peggy Lee anymore, and you didn't have to be a poor black artist. You could be a white young kid who was a true artist, looking for the truth."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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'Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin'

Where: 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 25.

Tickets: $34.99

Information: (323) 960-1055; http://www.room105musical.com

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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