Janis Joplin needs no introduction. A singer of iconic proportions, her rough, powerful voice propelled her like a shooting star, and her tragically early death made her life a cautionary tale for a generation. A Night with Janis Joplin uses the frame of a rock concert to relate parts of her past, and while it does succeed on some levels, it fails to capture the complexity of Joplin’s life.
Joplin narrates her own story in between-song anecdotes to the audience. She reminisces about her early years in Port Arthur, Texas, the eldest of three children, and talks about the great female singers who influenced and inspired her own music. As she does, these singers appear, performing songs Joplin later covered. Etta James sings “Tell Mama” in an across-the-decades pseudo-duet with Joplin, displaying their similarities as well as their differences. Odetta’s version of “Down On Me” is followed by Joplin’s take on the song. Bessie Smith solos on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, giving the audience a don’t-mess-with-me look before she sashays off stage. “Little Girl Blue” is performed first by Nina Simone, then by Joplin, both utilizing subdued styles. Finally, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, joins forces with Joplin, the Queen of Rock, in a high-voltage duet on “Spirit in the Dark”.
In the show’s second act, Joplin’s biographical tales turn into more philosophical musings. The climax to the show is Joplin with the full cast performing a magnetic version of “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven”, bringing the audience dancing into the aisles. An encore number, with the audience joining in, closes the show on a playful, feel-good note.
The strongest part of the show is the music, featuring many of the songs Joplin made famous, among them “Piece of My Heart”, “Summertime”, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, and “Me and Bobby McGee”. Strong performances are given by Tawny Dolley as Etta James, Sylvia MacCalla as Odetta and Bessie Smith, and Amma Osei as Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. Kacee Clanton showed an outstanding musical ability in the vocally challenging role of Janis Joplin, performing most of the musical numbers and rarely offstage during the production. The onstage band, led by keyboardist Todd Olson, was up to the challenge of recreating the sound of a Joplin concert.
If the book were only as strong as the musical performances, this show could have been much better. Playwright Randy Johnson, who also directed, presents a sugar-coated version of Janis Joplin. Her alcoholism is never mentioned, the only reference to it being in moments throughout the play when Joplin takes swigs from a Jim Beam bottle. As for the drug habit, which led to Joplin’s death by overdose in 1970, nothing is said save some cryptic comments by Joplin about wrestling with her “problems”. Since the show is presented in association with the Estate of Janis Joplin, such bowdlerization of her life was almost inevitable, and neither Johnson’s direction nor Kacee Clanton’s performance could overcome some of the leaden monologues written for the Joplin character.
I can recommend seeing this show just for the musical performances. However, if you’re looking for Janis Joplin the artist, the outspoken woman, the struggling addict, the flawed yet brilliant human being to appear on stage, A Night with Janis Joplin will ultimately disappoint you.
A Night with Janis Joplin is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Matthews Theatre on the campus of Princeton University through October 29th, 2017. For tickets and information, visit mccarter.org.