McCarter Theatre Centre’s production of A Night with Janis Joplin (trailer) will strum the memory chords of people who lived through the sixties and those familiar with its music only from their favorite Classic Rock station. Staged more or less as a concert, the original production, written and directed by Randy Johnson, was nominated for a Tony award. This mounting of it, which opened October 14 and runs through October 29, alternates leads between Kacee Clanton and Kelly McIntyre, performing some of Joplin’s most unforgettable tracks, backed up by a live eight-piece band.
Haunting the Joplin character is a quartet of African-American singers of the blues and soul music she as “a white chick” sought to emulate. These influences include Etta James (played and sung by Tawny Dolley), Odetta and Bessie Smith (Sylvia MacCalla), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Amma Osei), and an unnamed Blues Singer (Sharon Catherine Brown).
Any of these four women could have stolen the show, and they have numerous solos, duets with Joplin, and “girl group” numbers, which give Clanton/McIntyre the opportunity to rest their voices after such larynx-scorching numbers as “Piece of My Heart” and “Cry Baby.” Especially enjoyable were their blues versions of songs like “Summertime” (sung by Amma Osei) and “Down on Me” (Sylvia MacCalla), followed by Joplin singing her version (Kacee Clanton played Joplin on opening night).
The songs are interspersed with Joplin’s spoken reminiscences about her Texas childhood, early exposure to music and singing—the Broadway musicals her mother loved—and her love of performing. Although she swigs stage liquor throughout, you hear almost nothing about the heroin addiction that killed her, some 47 years ago.
The musicality of cast and band is thoroughly enjoyable. Yet, something about the nature of the tribute band approach is vaguely disturbing. When a production is about someone whose every intonation and warble is seared into memory, are we watching theater or mimicry? Is it the case that the more successful the cast is in capturing the “true” voice of their characters, the less they reveal to the audience? Perhaps that’s one reason the bring-down-the-house number by Sharon Catherine Brown as the unnamed Blues Singer is so powerful. She could—and does—truly own it. Probably I was the only audience-member even remotely worried about this. Everyone else was rocking out.
Even if you remember the late ’60s only vaguely (for whatever reason), from the Kentucky coalmines to the California sun, Joplin’s music was unforgettable and electrifying, as is this production. Clanton has played Joplin in other tribute musicals and has said this one, by focusing on the singer’s musical roots, gets closest to what she wants to convey. McIntyre played Joplin in the national touring cast of the show.
Production credits to Patricia Wilcox (choreography); Len Rhodes (original music arrangements); Todd Olson (music director and keyboards); Rob Bissinger (set design); Amy Clark (costume design); Mike Baldassari (lighting design); Ben Selke (sound design); Darrel Maloney (projection design); Leah J. Loukas (hair and makeup design); Hethyr (Red) Verhoef (production stage manager).
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.