Janis Joplin was a true original. But as the musical/tribute concert A Night with Janis Joplin proves, she didn’t just come out of nowhere.
Joplin became a top star during the psychedelic rock era of the late 1960s. But her roots were in the blues, and it was her mixture of old and new styles that made her stand out. Like many performers of her generation, she tragically burned hot and fast, and her addictions to drugs and alcohol killed her at age 27. She’s never really gone away, though, and A Night with Janis Joplin, written and directed by Randy Johnson, shows why.
Kacee Clanton and Kelly McIntyre alternate in the role of Joplin; I saw McIntyre, and she’s excellent. She captures every last growl, screech and moan of Joplin’s style – her full-throated version of “Cry Baby” and her rumbling, intense “Ball and Chain” are highlights. But she also captures Joplin’s good-natured onstage persona. With a crooked grin and a self-deprecating laugh that seems to come at the end of every sentence (whether she’s told a joke or not), McIntyre makes her version of Joplin endearing.
While A Night with Janis Joplin recreates Joplin’s sound effectively, it also attempts to tell the story of Joplin’s life and how her musical style was formed. Those segments are the show’s weakest parts. Joplin’s between-songs patter runs from overly literal (“Y’all know I was raised in Port Arthur, Texas, right?”) to evasive (there’s only one mention of her drug problem). And while it’s true that blues was a huge influence on her style, Johnson’s script drones on and on about the blues so much that it quickly becomes tedious.
McIntyre is backed by four superb female singers, each of whom gets turns in the spotlight singing blues classics in character. Sylvia MacCalla is suitably regal as both Odetta and Bessie Smith, while Sharon Catherine Brown and Tawny Dolley shine in smaller roles. Amma Osei does a fine, solemn impression of Nina Simone, while her version of Aretha Franklin captures Aretha’s energy but not her personality. But while these segments show how Joplin synthesized her influences – Odetta’s ballad version of “Down On Me” is contrasted with Joplin’s hard-driving version – they fit awkwardly into the show’s structure. Instead of fitting tributes to legendary performers, these segments come off more like opportunities for McIntyre to slip offstage and rest her voice.
A fine 8-piece band, led by keyboardist Todd Olson, recreates the sound of Joplin’s recordings. But Ben Selke’s deafening sound design defeats the band’s best efforts. The mix was so loud that I had to wear earplugs; if I hadn’t brought those earplugs along, I would have had to leave after the first song. (Even the vintage hits played over the loudspeakers before the show begins are too loud.) And Mike Baldassari’s lighting occasionally shines blinding spotlights into the eyes of the audience.
Otherwise, the show’s technical aspects are well done, including Leah J. Loukas’s wigs, Amy Clark’s groovy costumes, and Darrel Maloney’s trippy projections.
A Night with Janis Joplin doesn’t provide many surprises, or many insights into what made Joplin tick. But Joplin’s devoted fans – and judging from the raucous crowd reaction, there are still a lot of them around – will find plenty to like in this high-energy, high-spirited production. That is, as long as they bring their earplugs.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
A Night with Janis Joplin plays through October 29, 2017 at the Matthews Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center – 91 University Place, in Princeton, New Jersey. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 258-2787, or purchase them online.