A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN IS A
CELEBRATION OF THE LEGEND’S MUSIC
AND PASSION FOR THE BLUES
The San Francisco Bay Area celebrates 1967 this summer as 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the SUMMER OF LOVE. The American Conservatory Theatre also brings back that golden summer of Aquarius as the legendary Janis Joplin returns to the Avalon ballroom (the Geary Stage) extended through July 7th. A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN in its San Francisco premiere at ACT caps an amazing 50th season for the company that included the opening of their new STRAND STAGE. Fifty years ago in 1967 it was the Summer of Love in San Francisco and ACT had just staged their first ambitious season. This is the perfect summer to stage JOPLIN, written and directed by Randy Johnson. This concept juke box first started at the Pasadena Playhouse then moved to Broadway where it was well received. This updated production has the approval of the Joplin family; Laura Joplin and Michael Joplin sister and brother were on hand at the opening June 14th.
Janis is a native of Texas, friend and producer Chet Helms convinced her to move to free-spirited San Francisco where her career begins. On the heels of Amy L. Berg’s well-received 2015 documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue this musical of JOPLIN'S life bloomed. This project is the perfect fit to tell her musical history that doesn’t hit too hard with the Juke Box theme that takes down many shows like this.
The accomplished Kacee Clanton is Janis Joplin; she gives a “knocks your socks off” performance. The thrilling Clanton turned ACT’s Geary Theater into two rousing hours immersed in Joplin’s music and songs. She opens with the classic “Tell Mama”. Many of the key songs are by some important female influences on her career. We see and hear portrayals of Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and New York singing trio the Chantels from a quartet of talented cast members playing multiple they include; Tawny Dolley, Sylvia MacCalla, Ashley Tamar Davis, Sharon Catherine Brown, and the dynamic Kelly Mcintylre who appears as Janis on some nights.
Dazzlingly adapted by Randy Johnson of Always...Patsy Cline and the forthcoming Shout, Sister, Shout! A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN premiered on Broadway in 2014 and earned a Tony nomination for Mary Bridget Davies in the role of Joplin. The forceful Kacee Clanton, who has done Janis several times before including in San Jose knows exactly what she’s doing as she brings Janis back to San Francisco. Clanton has the kind of compelling voice necessary to perform songs by Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. Clanton brings everything to the table with a climax of such fervor she comes close to tears and chilling emotion. The same kind of confidence Joplin needed to survive the intense party years ‘60s rock and roll.
Janis is short on words but she has some memorable verbal moments on stage over her short career, mostly sharing the fact she was lonely off stage, “When I am up here on this stage, it is the only time I don’t feel lonely. - On stage I make love to twenty five thousand people; and then I go home alone”. With Johnson’s short breaks between music themes, we don’t hear much about her personal life but she relives this one important story about her love for musical theater writers; “It was really my mom that got me to sing and understand the blues,” she says. She shares how her mom played West Side Story and Hello Dolly for Laura and Michael her siblings, both of whom joined the cast for the curtain call. When her mother exposed her to Porgy and Bess that moved young Janis and one of her first important hits becomes “Summertime”.
“Don't compromise yourself, you're all you got” Joplin was provocative “I think I think too much. That's why I drink!” Johnson doesn’t explore much of her deeper dark side, but he brings the Blues to front stage. “Little Girl Blue” a prime example of the thick influence of Nina Simone and others. The deep insight into Joplin’s roller-coaster life is not explored in this amazing tribute but you will be transported back to her influential history by the dynamic performances of this cast. There are a few historical holes in this two-hour homage: lots of references to Joplin’s breakthrough with Big Brother and the Holding Company, but no mention of her other bands, the Kozmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band, you remember from her appearances on Dick Cavett, material from each is included in the subtext of this show.
The four iconic women on stage with Janis set up the power and history of her body of work. The Chantels and Joplin’s back-up singers, the Joplinaires include the four women we see perform throughout the two hours; As Odetta, Sylvia MacCalla sings “Down on Me” in authentic perfection, then Joplin takes over and transforms it into her own iconic sound and brings the opening night sold out house to their feet. There were many show stoppers during the performance and I am sure they continue each night. MacCalla is also a Bessie Smith who recreates “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” bringing some to tears as many stood at their seats for some of the numbers.
Etta James is performed by Tawny Dolley who is a powerhouse in “Tell Mama” brings the full power to the blues as she fills the Geary theatre with her heart and soul. Sharon Catherine Brown proves her show stopping solo with “Blues Singer,” and keeps the energy and power at 100% for “Today I Sing the Blues” and brings the house down with the over the top closing note.
The craft team for A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN includes the wonderful 60’s swagger for the women singers and the classic summer of love swoops by choreographer Patricia Wilcox. When the four appear as Blues Singer, Nina, Bessie, and Etta, their “Kosmic Blues/I Shall Be Released” is a “wow” number that makes the night’s ticket price seem a bargain.
The power and emotion on stage will steal your heart and breath. Amy Clark’s costumes are a memory walk through the Haight Ashbury and the Summer of Love. The clever Rob Bissinger’s scenic design and two level set brings that concert feel and the classic center stage Persian carpet that most of the bands used on stage. The design includes a small side set for Joplin to tell her stories, and the stage is cluttered with half full whisky bottles that she drinks from after each number. The projections by Darrel Maloney that include the staple psychedelic patterns bouncing, but more important are the historic pictures of Janis’ heros, and herself during her early career. Both Mike Baldassari and Gertjan Houben created the rock concert light design, but it transcends to more a 60’s Fillmore feel and it also transports us to the Blues clubs that Joplin grew up in.
Musical director Todd Olson leads a nine member rock band on stage that includes three horns. They are eclectic and powerhouse through her classics like “Tell Mama,” “Down on Me,” “Cry Baby,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Mercedes-Benz” and “Piece of my Heart.” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” One of the musicals strongest numbers includes Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” The women affirm “We have arrived.” Each of these four singers get their solo moments, but Sharon Catherine Brown brings the second act a superb rendition of “Today I Sing the Blues.” She owns it and tears flow as the audience is transfixed to the love and passion Brown brings to the the Geary Stage.
The queen of rock, Janis Joplin, has been gone for a half a century, but her music has never left us. The rock legend died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose, but her incandescent vocals seem eternal. Joplin’s journey from Port Arthur, Texas, to the Haight to Monterey Pop and superstardom. This musical journey inspires cheering worship at the almighty church of Janis. Using Joplin’s songs to tell her story was the only reasonable choice writer Randy Johnson could have made.
The force of her personality is so strong. Artists like Bonnie Raitt, Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey and many others spawned from the sounds she created. It is hard to imagine anyone who would not be transfixed by this NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, it is a powerhouse of music and a look at the true Queen of American Rock and Roll. Of course the show ends with a standing ovation - but that is only after four other show stopping standing ovations during the two hour performance. Yes she comes back out for a not so surprising treat for the roaring fans for one more classic tune to close the night. The musical has already been extended, tickets are going fast - Congrats ACT on a wonderful successful Golden 50th Season.
A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN continues in an extended run through July 9, 2017 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.
The American Conservatory Theatre Presents
‘A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN’
Created, Written and Directed by Randy Johnson, Music Director Todd Olson
Extended through: July 9
405 Geary St. San Francisco
2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $20-$120; 415-749-2228,
Photos by Kevin Berne