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Review: ‘A Night with Janis Joplin’ at the Strathmore

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If any singer from the hippie era could take a little piece of your heart, it was the legendary Janis Joplin. In A Night with Janis Joplin, the story of the iconic rock star emblazoned the stage of the Music Center at Strathmore with electrifying performances celebrating the flamboyant white girl from Port Arthur, Texas and the soulful black songstresses who influenced her uniquely original vocal style. But nobody could sing a song like Janis Joplin.

Kelly McIntyre as Janis Joplin. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.

Port Arthur was too square a town to contain the rebellious spirit of Janis Joplin so she eventually headed for the big time in sunny California. Even though she grew up in a stable middle-class home, her insecurities deemed her a self-proclaimed misfit. Janis Joplin was teased, bullied and ostracized for her counterculture ways but she channeled the angst of growing up an acne-pocked ugly duckling and the distinction of being voted, “the ugliest guy on campus,” into becoming one of the brightest rock stars of all times and the power and heat of the white rock movement.

Janis Joplin sang from the pain of her formative years and used that pain to make deep emotional connections with audiences from cheap saloons to Madison Square Garden and beyond… and she preferred the cheap saloons!
The award-winning A Night with Janis Joplin, created, written, and directed by Randy Johnson, presented the life, times and talent of the charismatic Janis Joplin, showcasing the hits from her brief but stellar career.

In the short span of four years, Janis Joplin took the world by storm, producing four successful albums together with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, and as a solo artist.

As Janis Joplin, Kelly McIntyre sang from the soulful depths of her entire being, packing a powerful vocal punch as she projected Janis’ raw, gutsy, bad-girl vocals – rocking the Strathmore full tilt. Kelly succeeded in resurrecting a troubled but super-sized life in an uncannily joyous characterization of Joplin’s bluesy funk. The performance accentuated Joplin’s spunk, grit and upbeat aura. It was while taking the occasional swig of Southern Comfort that she played up Joplin’s pain.

“Combination of the Two,” the psychedelic opening number, featured Janis, the Band and the Joplinaires, a soul girl group of black singers who were some of the heroines of song that most influenced her singing. “Tell Mama,” “My Baby,” “Summertime,” “Turtle Blues,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Today I Sing the Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Spirit in the Dark,” fused musical genres in Act One.

“Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Maybe,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Cry Baby,” “Kozmic Blues”/I Shall Be Blessed,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven,” “Ball and Chain,” “Stay with Me,” and an encore with “Mercedes Benz” brought a grateful audience to their feet in hand-clapping celebration for the iconic Janis Joplin and the singers who shaped her pure talent.

In conjured musings with heroines Odetta, Bessie Smith, the Chantels, Blues Woman, Etta James and Aretha Franklin, Aurianna Angelique, Ashley Tamar Davis, Tawney Dolley; Jennifer Leigh Warren graced the stage in imaginary and what were real-life solos and duets with Janis. They charged the air with the emotionally riveting sounds of blues and soul with some of the most incredibly beautiful voices that I have heard on any stage anywhere. These women could sing!

In an interesting duet with Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and the Queen of Soul raised the rafters with a churchy happy dance and gospel shout on “Spirit in the Dark”.

Set Design by Brian Prather, Lighting by Ryan O’ Gara, Choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Sound Design by Rafe Carlotta captured the psychedelic mood of the times while Projection Design by Darrel Maloney added the warmth of a photo collage of Janis and family from her early days back in Port Arthur. Hippie bell bottom jeans and fringed vests with second-hand Victorian Maxie-dresses and tops by Amy Clark added thrift-store vintage to the costume design.

Janis Joplin’s long-suffering and loneliness led to the drugs, sex, and cheap thrills that ultimately made her a tragic figure. But she continues to light up the world with the rich thrills of her magical song. A Night with Janis Joplin captures it all.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 20-minute intermission.

A Night with Janis Joplin played on Sunday, November 19, 2017, at The Music Center at Strathmore — 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets to upcoming performances, go online.

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