LOS ANGELES — It's hard to tell how many Joni Mitchell fans there are in the world, and not enough of them were at the press preview of "The Joni Mitchell Project" Wednesday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. But those who were there were happy.
No, they were ecstatic.
With plenty of reason. There will be the purists out there who want their Joni coming only from the woman herself. Her warblings and cadences are intensely personal and virtually inimitable. But imitation is not the point of the evening concocted by director David Schweizer, writer Henry Edwards and arranger Richard Bronskill. A celebration of this versatile poet and singer is.
So the purists must do what they must and the rest of us can enjoy "The Joni Mitchell Project" for what it is rather than what it's not: a concert of two dozen Mitchell songs enlivened in imaginative ways by the broadly different talents of five expressive performers--Hinton Battle, Noreen Hennessy, Philip Littell, Lisa Harlow Stark and Ren Woods.
They are listed alphabetically because each is part of a whole, and none works independently of any other. Each, however, brings an exciting, highly idiosyncratic dimension to the material, without worrying about making the song sound as if Mitchell were doing it. The presentational manner is reminiscent of nothing so much as "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"--all song, no dialogue and a rousing tribute to another highly emotional poet of popular music.
As with "Jacques Brel," the coherence of the work lies even more with the deviser, director and musical arranger than the interpreters. "The Joni Mitchell Project" is a reminder of the density of Mitchell's gift as an articulator of the wounded heart. The show, which is enhanced by the diversity of interpretations it receives, is unified by the songwriter's own sensibilities as it tumbles through such favorites as "I Had a King," "Conversation," "California/The Last Time I Saw Richard," "Ladies of the Canyon," "All I Want" and "Dancing Man"--a number that benefits hugely from the dancing feet of Hinton Battle and the poker face of Philip Littell, who is not so much a dancer as a clown with dancing Irish eyes.
Donna Barrier's costumes are determined to remain unflashy, brushed with color in the first half and uniformly black and elegant in the second. But there is nothing uniform about the performers.
Blond, winsome Harlow Stark is the most reminiscent of Mitchell, in vocal purity and interpretive simplicity. Her version of "Down to You," in which she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar, is the highlight of this show. But everyone gets a turn. Woods' comes with "My Old Man." Aside from sheer vocal power, she projects great poignancy. Hennessy's moment is "Blue," but she affects a perplexing femme fatale pose that doesn't always jibe with the material and could stand some toning down. It is, however, this very eclecticism that enriches the show.
Woods and Battle do a terrific, humorously subjective rendition of "A Case of You," but for sheer understated hilarity no one outshines Littell. In his floppy pants and shirt, he looks as if he wandered out of the cast of "The Playboy of the Western World" and intruded onto the wrong stage. For all his vocal tricks and loping goofiness, this is a leprechaun who knows how to play down his act when the material calls for it.
Timian Alsaker's design is spare and stylish, relying on a certain look: raw concrete, a quadrangle of white steel suspended at a tilt, pools of white light, a luminescent floor with panels that go on or off--or are transformed by mottled projections that make it seem as if Monet had been there.
This is a concept show that works primarily because someone, or a handful of someones--namely Schweizer, Edwards, Bronskill and Alsaker--knew what they were after. You may wander in for the love of "The Silky Veils of Ardor," "He Played Real Good for Free," "Songs to Aging Children Come" and the inevitable "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game" (wisely left for the end), but you will be invigorated by the totality of the achievement, including an impressive five-person band that includes three women.
A final note. The songs in this garden of verse and music, all but one, are Mitchell's oldies and goodies, the ones she grew in the '60s and '70s, her most romantic, poetic and, yes, still her best.
At 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2. Ends Dec. 16. $22-$27. (213) 627-5599.
'THE JONI MITCHELL PROJECT'
A concert devised by Henry Edwards and David Schweizer. Songs Joni Mitchell. Director Schweizer. Music direction and arrangements Richard Bronskill. Assistant director/movement coach Randee Trabitz. Set and lights Timian Alsaker. Costumes Donna Barrier. Sound Mark Friedman. Projections Donald Krieger. Stage manager David S. Franklin. Assistant music director Donna Debreceni. Cast Hinton Battle, Noreen Hennessy, Philip Littell, Lisa Harlow Stark, Ren Woods. Musicians Debreceni, Eric Cunningham, Ritt Henn, Lisa Maxwell, Alicia Siegall.