October 18, 2017

“A Night With Janis Joplin” Is an Energetic Musical Tribute; Randy Johnson’s Broadway Concert Plays at McCarter Theatre

“A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN”: Performances are underway for “A Night with Janis Joplin.” Written and directed by Randy Johnson, the musical runs through October 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Janis Joplin (Kacee Clanton, front and center) gives a high-energy concert, backed by the Joplinaires: Sharon Catherine Brown, left; Amma Osei; Sylvia MacCalla; and Tawny Dolley. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

A Night with Janis Joplin is playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Written and directed by Randy Johnson, this raw, high-energy entertainment is a tribute to Joplin and several of the artists who inspired her. Although the show undoubtedly holds special resonance for Joplin’s fans, multi-generational audiences are likely to enjoy this rousing mix of blues, soul, and psychedelic rock.

The show is a work of theater in that the performers portray iconic musical artists. The format is that of a rock concert — set a week before Joplin’s death — in which the singers are aware they are performing in the present time and place. They frequently address the audience, encouraging us to sing along.

Janis Lyn Joplin (1943-1970) grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. Although her family life was relatively happy, she was treated badly at school, and saw herself as an outcast in her community. For this reason she identified with the music of blues singers such as Bessie Smith.

Through music promoter Chet Helms she went to San Francisco in 1966, to join the band Big Brother and the Holding Company. The band played the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. In 1968 Joplin formed the Kozmic Blues Band, with whom she performed at Woodstock. After the Kozmic Blues Band’s dissolution in 1969 she formed the Full Tilt Boogie Band.

Despite her success she could not overcome an addiction to heroin. She died of a drug overdose at age 27. In 1995 Joplin was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Randy Johnson, who produced Always, Patsy Cline and co-conceived Elvis the Concert, created A Night with Janis Joplin at the behest of Joplin’s family. Her siblings, Laura and Michael Joplin, provided Johnson with all of her journals and recordings.

After receiving a world premiere at Portland Center Stage in 2011, and subsequent productions at Arena Stage and the Cleveland Play House, the show briefly played at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater in 2013. This current production was presented by the American Conservatory Theater in June.

Ostensibly a biography of Joplin, fundamentally the work is a tribute to female singers — and to inspiration itself. The show demonstrates the evolution of musical interpretation, as multiple performers frequently offer contrasting renditions of the same song. Johnson has conceived a concert in which Janis Joplin shares the stage with several of the artists who influenced her style.

In one case this would have been impossible; Bessie Smith (1894-1937) died before Joplin was born. The other singers, while older than Joplin, were her contemporaries: Odetta (1930-2008), Nina Simone (1933-2003), Etta James (1938-2012), and Aretha Franklin (born 1942, the year before Joplin). These artists are portrayed by the “Joplinaires,” a quartet that provides backup vocals for Joplin.

Because the title role is vocally demanding, it is filled, in alternate performances, by two singers: Kacee Clanton and Kelly McIntyre. Clanton, who previously performed the role in the course of the show’s Broadway run, will sing the evenings of October 19-21, 26, 28, and the matinee of October 29. McIntyre, who was heard by this reviewer, will sing the matinees of October 21, 22, 26, 28, and the evening of October 27. McIntyre joined the first national tour in 2016, and has performed the role in four subsequent productions.

As Joplin, McIntyre effectively captures the late singer’s raw yet versatile vocal style, nervous energy, and uninhibited passion mixed with unexpected humor. In performance the real-life Joplin was almost always in motion, habitually brushing her hair with her hand; McIntyre imitates that mannerism without overusing it.

More important, McIntyre consistently cultivates a rapport with the other musicians. Onstage chemistry was essential to Joplin, and it is abundant when McIntyre delivers trademark Joplin songs including “Tell Mama,” in which Joplin is joined by Tawny Dolley as Etta James; “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder);” and “Cry Baby.”

The band, under the direction of keyboardist Todd Olson, particularly stands out during Joplin’s rendition of “Maybe.” Saxophonist Jeremy Clayton, trumpeter Jeff Ostroski, and trombonist Matt Melone echo the rich sound of the band Chicago (Tranist Authority), which opened for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968. Guitarists Steve Gibb and Alexander Prezzano, bassist Aiden Moore, and drummer Jeff Roberts provide a rhythmic, sturdy accompaniment throughout the entire performance.

Early in the show, “Maybe” is first performed by the vocal quartet, in the guise of the Chantels, a female group that originated in the 1950s. As with other songs, Joplin’s blues-inspired rendition is juxtaposed with the original doo-wop performance by the Chantels.

Although the show is not a traditional musical, Joplin reveals that she was exposed to musicals such as My Fair Lady and West Side Story by her mother, who often listened to cast albums. Joplin goes on to mention that one of her own favorite works was Porgy and Bess.

This provides a cue for two contrasting renditions of “Summertime.” The first is by Amma Osei, as a nameless “Blues Woman.” Osei’s version is largely traditional, taking minimal liberties with Gershwin’s melody. Her performance is exquisite as she delicately caresses each note. McIntyre responds, letting Joplin infuse the song with her raw, distinct style.

“As a “Blues Singer,” Sharon Catherine Brown delivers an outstanding rendition of “Today I Sing the Blues.” She employs her visceral emotion, high vocal range, and acute sense of timing to make the number a showstopper.

Equally strong is Sylvia MacCalla, whose lower timbre is a contrast to Brown’s. As Odetta, MacCalla delivers a pensive, broadly phrased performance of “Down on Me.” Similarly, MacCalla infuses “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” with a warm, matter-of-fact sincerity as Bessie Smith.

As Aretha Franklin, Amma Osei compels the audience to participate. Declaring that the Queen of Soul wishes to share the stage with the Queen of Rock and Roll, she leads the audience in a chant: “what the Queen wants, the Queen gets!” Chiding the audience for being too reticent, she quips “this is not The Lawrence Welk Show,” underlining a subtle cultural tension.

The call-and-response continues in the stirring anthem “Spirit in the Dark,” with its repeated interjection of “say yeah.” The number is a musical communion for Franklin and Joplin, their clasped hands accentuating their bond as they finish the song — and the first act.

“Kozmic Blues” and “I Shall Be Released” form an exquisite medley for the quartet. Osei, MacCalla, Dolley, and Brown blend together beautifully as each adds her rich, stirring voice.

“I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven” is a rousing anthem written for Joplin in 1970, by record producer Jerry Ragovovoy. Joplin died before she could sing it, and it went unperformed until the 2011 premiere of A Night with Janis Joplin, which Ragovoy attended shortly before his own death later that year. Here, Joplin conversationally mentions that the song was written for her, and casually asks if the audience if they wish to hear it.

The costumes by Amy Clark faithfully evoke the style of Joplin’s wardrobe. The glittery bellbottoms, loose-fitting shirts, and fringed jackets — punctuated by a colorful necklace and hair feathers — effectively establish the period as well as Joplin’s style.

Like McIntyre’s performance, the choreography by Patricia Wilcox captures Joplin’s frantic energy, providing the Joplinaires with rapid, staccato movements. A video screen in the back of the stage serves to display Joplin’s portrait of her sister Laura, family photographs, and a series of abstract psychedelic images. The artwork and photographs are fascinating to view, but the other images become somewhat distracting in a show that already gives the audience much to see and hear.

Johnson’s direction uses levels thoughtfully. For much of the concert, Joplin is on stage with her band. As she remembers artists who inspired her, they sing on an upper level before descending a staircase and joining her onstage. This is turned around in the finale, “Mercedes Benz,” in which it is Joplin who sings on the upper level before joining her muses.

In between songs, and often during them, Joplin speaks to the audience, delivering acerbic one-liners that reveal her anxieties about loneliness and death. “Onstage, I make love to 25,000 people — then I go home alone,” she remarks. Elsewhere she pointedly comments that “People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers miserable. They like their blues singers to die afterwards.”

Facing this inherent misery, which informs so many of the performances, somewhat paradoxically results in a musical event that is empowering and even life-affirming. “All you really have that really matters are feelings, the real-life Joplin once said. “That’s what music is to me.” The cast of A Night with Janis Joplin delivers their songs with soulful, unconstrained passion; this invites the audience to be equally uninhibited.