BWW Reviews: ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN is a Rocking Good Time
"Texas is okay if you want to settle down and do your thing quietly," Janis Joplin once said, "but it's not for outrageous people, and I was always outrageous." Janis must have forgotten about Austin, because One Night with Janis Joplin, the Broadway-bound Janis Joplin musical now playing at the Zach Theatre, seems tailor made for our music-loving city.
One Night, conceived, written, and directed by Randy Johnson, uses a concert setting as a platform for the Queen of Rock to share stories about her career, her take on music in general, and the great blues singers who have inspired her. There's no big message. There's no profound idea. The point is just to spend two and a half hours rockin' out.
It seems that the only thing harder than being a legend is imitating one. The astounding Kacee Clanton gets the honor and challenge of stepping into Janis's hippie-chic garb (replicated by the amazing Susan Branch Towne), and she does a fine job at recreating Joplin's signature voice and personality. Clanton's Janis is everything you would expect. When she speaks, she's ballsy, honest, witty, and incredibly smart, with a touch of vulnerability and a tiny bit of self-doubt thrown in. When she sings, she's able to capture the Janis grit and rawness. When Clanton really lets loose with some Janis-esque ad libs-as she does on "Piece of My Heart," "Cry Baby," and "Ball and Chain"-you forget for a moment that the person you're watching an actress playing the Queen of Rock.As "The Blues Singer," Tiffany Mann also has the dubious challenge of imitating great artists of the past. Mann plays all of Janis's influences, including Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin. Mann is able to accurately capture the sound, look, and personality of each woman. Some highlights include her breathtaking operatic rendition of "Summertime" and her powerful, standing ovation worthy "I Shall Be Released." But of all the characters Mann is called upon to play, the most memorable is her Aretha Franklin. She completely captures the sassy diva, and her duet with Clanton's Janis on the Act I closer "Spirit in the Dark" brings down the house. Rounding out the cast are an incomparable eight person on-stage band and Tricky Jones, Felicia Dinwiddie, and Cari Hutson as a trio of singers dubbed "The Joplinaires."
While all of the performances feel quite authentic, there are a few issues with Johnson's book and direction. His show essentially Disneyfies Janis by refusing to mention her well-documented drug use. In addition, there are times when Janis's monologues, compiled from real Joplin quotes, feel a bit rehearsed, and rehearsed inauthentic musings go against everything that the raw, unpredictable Janis was. Still, these are minor issues that can be fixed before the show goes to Broadway this fall. The more real and honest the show becomes, the bigger a hit it will be.
But even as things stand now, One Night with Janis Joplin is a remarkably fun night out that closes Zach's Topfer Theatre's inaugural season on a high note. One Night with Janis Joplin is bound to be the most talked about show in Austin this summer and with a few minor adjustments, the show may be a surprise hit on Broadway this fall.
Top Photo: Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin. Photo by Kirk Tuck.
Note: Recommended for mature audiences only.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 20 minute intermission.
ONE NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin plays Zach's Topfer Theatre at 202 South Lamar Blvd now thru August 18th. Performances are Wednesday thru Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $25-$95. For tickets and more information, please visit www.zachtheatre.org.