BWW Review: A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN Rocks the Geary Theatre
If you don't know much about her going into A Night with Janis Joplin, you won't know much more when you leave. There are factoids. The Joplin children - Janis was the oldest of three - performed household chores in Port Arthur, Texas accompanied by their mother's beloved Broadway cast recordings. There are also numerous song set-ups for artists said to be Joplin muses, but those and the other connective tissue written by production director and creator Randy Johnson, do little to explain how Joplin became one of the biggest stars of her era and genre. Nor do they give much insight into what led to her drug-fueled death at age 27. Her ever-increasing chugs on bottles of amber liquid stashed around the stage telegraph a drinking problem but not the underlying causes.
If, however, you've come for a 1960s rock concert and, more urgently, to worship at a shrine to Pearl, Joplin's nickname, you are in the right place as evidenced by the preponderance of late-era baby boomers in the house swaying to the beat, hands raised in power-to-the-people affirmation.
The set by Rob Bissinger renders a fairly bare-bones two-tier performance venue supporting Darryl Maloney's requisite psychedelic projections, but it is enhanced with sly bits like using era-appropriate WEM recording equipment as steps from one level to another. The band is shaggy and loud, and front and center for most of the evening is Kacee Clanton, who understudied Mary Bridget Davies and then succeeded into the role of Janis during the show's brief run on Broadway.
Though she's had a long relationship with this show (six prior productions noted in her biography) and the similarly themed Love, Janis, Clanton looks almost too refined, suggesting more Melissa Manchester than the elfin blues singer at hand. (At one point a line-drawn Joplin self-portrait is projected on the back wall that beautifully evokes her crooked-grinned, child-like charm.) Clanton is a fine actor and establishes as much chemistry with the audience as the text allows, given it's propensity for dropping period names and then ginning up a reaction if it does not happen organically, or setting up "and then I sang" segues. This is, however, presented as a musical, and Clanton roars through Joplin's hits with a ferocious, gravelly strength that is a truly breathtaking demonstration of vocal prowess and craft. For many, this will be enough to fulfill the ticket contract.
Another plus is that, despite its weakness as a work of biographical theatre, there are actually two terrific stand-alone revues on stage just aching to break out. One is The Janis Joplin Experience, a sort of penultimate cover or tribute-band show riding on Clanton's capable shoulders.
The other might be called Queens of the Blues, featuring savvy sketches of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Etta James, Odetta and Bessie Smith. Throughout the night Sharon Catherine Brown, Ashley Támar Davis, Tawny Dolley and Sylvia MacCalla play Joplin back-up singers and then step into the spotlights of these blues legends and other Joplin inspirations like the Chantels. Brown, with lead credits in tours of Jekyll & Hyde and Dreamgirls, is particularly impressive on a soaring "Today I Sing the Blues." Later in the show the quartet creates a soulful sonic and visual tableaux - stunningly lit in near-palpable phosphorescence by Mike Baldassari and Gertjan Houben - with Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."
So if you are looking for intricate dramatic insights on the life and death of a troubled music icon, you might do better to screen Bette Midler's Joplin-inspired The Rose. However, if your jam is decibel-breaking rock and blues performed by a cast who knows how, then spend A Night with Janis Joplin.
A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN
Written and directed by Randy Johnson
Through July 9, 2017
American Conservatory Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
act-sf.org | 415.749.2228 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Kacee Clanton (Janis Joplin)
Sharon Catherine Brown (Joplinaire, Blues Singer, Chantel)
Ashley Támar Davis (Joplinaire, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Blues Woman, Chantel)
Tawny Dolley (Joplinaire, Etta James, Chantel)
Sylvia MacCalla (Joplinaire, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Chantel)
Kelly McIntyre (Janis Joplin Alternate)
Music Director Todd Olson
Scenic Designer Rob Bissinger
Costume Designer Amy Clark
Lighting Designers Mike Baldassari & Gertjan Houben
Sound Designer Ben Selke
Projection Designer Darrel Maloney
Choreographer Patricia Wilcox
Wig Designer Leah Loukas
Stage Manager Hethyr (Red) Verhoef
Assistant Stage Manager Elisa Guthertz
Photos by Kevin Berne