BWW Review: A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN: Feel Like Singin' the Blues
A Night With Janis Joplin
Created, written, and directed by Randy Johnson; Choreographer, Patricia Wilcox; Music Director, Jon Rossi; Lighting Design, Ryan O'Gara; Set Design, Brian Prather; Costume Design, Amy Clark; Sound Design, Rafe Carlotto; Projection Design, Darrel Maloney; Wig and Makeup Design, Leah J. Loukas; Production Stage Manager, Heather (Red) Verhoef
Featuring: Kelly McIntyre as Janis Joplin; The Joplinaires: Aurianna Angelique, Ashley Tamar Davis, Tawny Dolley, Jennifer Leigh Warren; The Band: Taylor Gray, Alexander Prezzano, Nick Novelli, Patrick McIsaac, Jon Rossi, Chris Smucker, Timothy Weiss, Chase Flemming
Performances January 19-20 at Boch Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-348-9738 or www.bochcenter.org
Janis Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas, and died of a heroin overdose a mere 27 years later on October 4, 1970, in Los Angeles, California. But, in that all too brief interim, she managed to pack a helluva lot of living and became one of the biggest female rock stars of her time. On the occasion of what would have been her 75th birthday, A Night With Janis Joplin opened a two-night engagement at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, sharing with Boston the spirit of Janis and the blues vocalists who inspired her.
Newton native KellyMcIntyre bears a passing resemblance to Joplin, aided by the long locks of hair she alternately whips around and pushes away from her face, and the casual tunic and jeans she wears, but she doesn't so much inhabit the artist as she evokes her. By virtue of familiar body language, a rapid verbal patter, and a powerhouse voice that can go from zero to sixty, McIntyre gives a performance worthy of the hoots and hollers she received from the home town crowd. From the moment she enters on a catwalk above the main stage, until the de rigueur encore rendition of "Mercedes Benz," McIntyre is tireless, energetic, and engaging, ignoring the fourth wall as she portrays the rock singer in concert mode.
A Night With Janis Joplin, created, written, and directed by Randy Johnson, intersperses Janis providing autobiographical narrative to flesh out a libretto, of sorts. However, the show is at its best during the musical numbers, a generous offering of the singer's canon presented with virtuosity and flourish by an eight-piece band. Especially notable are the pounding drum combinations of Music Director Jon Rossi and goose bump-inducing guitar riffs by Alexander Prezzano and Nick Novelli. The rest of the musicians include Taylor Gray on keyboard, Patrick McIsaac on bass, Chris Smucker on saxophone, Timothy Weiss on trumpet, and Chase Flemming on trombone. Original music arrangements are by Len Rhodes.
Alternately playing The Joplinaires, fictional backup singers, and real-life blues women who influenced Joplin's artistry, a quartet of African American vocalists underscores the fact that Janis was (self-described) a white chick who sang the blues. Aurianna Angelique croons a rich, smoky version of "Down on Me" as Odetta, and captures the sassiness of Bessie Smith in "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." The diverse talents of Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin are portrayed by Ashley Tamar Davis, Tawny Dolley conjures the memory of Etta James, and Jennifer Leigh Warren is featured as a generic blues singer, but her vocals are anything but generic. When these four women take the stage together, they hold the audience in their magical grip and beg the question: when will someone write a show just for them?
Brian Prather's set features a two-tier design, a spiral staircase that descends from the catwalk, and a large projection screen as backdrop. Darrel Maloney (projection design) features some photo montages, as well as colorful flower-power slides reminiscent of San Francisco in the sixties. Costume designer Amy Clark dresses Janis and the band in simple, hippie-style clothing, but shows great imagination and artistry for an array of gowns worn by the blues women. The lighting effects (Ryan O'Gara) are over the top, with spotlights repeatedly strafing the audience and too much use of strobes. The colors he chooses are apt, but they change rapidly and constantly, with the consequence that the show feels over-produced. It is more a reflection of the grandiose production values of today's concert world than anything back in Joplin's day. The same might be said of Rafe Carlotto's sound design, in that the volume of the music sometimes makes it difficult to discern the lyrics.
The technical criticisms notwithstanding, A Night With Janis Joplin is a much-needed balm for the children of the sixties. Although containing a respectable range of ages, the audience skewed toward the Baby Boomer end of the spectrum. Looking around the Shubert Theatre, one could see many men with white ponytails or balding heads, and women with bifocals and sensible shoes. However, they were bopping in their seats, jumping up for ovations, and they all knew all the words to the songs. For one glorious night, it felt good to sing the blues the way they used to be sung: with Pearl.