By Gary Laird
Janis Joplin was a force of nature. She was a candle in the wind. She was brash, vulgar, hard-drinking, hard-drugging, hard-living and fatally flawed. And she was tragically vulnerable. When she sang, all of that energy, both positive and negative, spilled out onto the stage in a torrent that swept everything before it. If you were in the audience, all you could do was grab a bit of flotsam and hang on. She took no prisoners.
She was both before her time and of it, a brief space from the early 1960s to the end in 1970. That's all she had. In that short time American music grew up. Without her, the music of today - rock music - might never have existed. She brought her sound, kicking and screaming, from the sweet sentimentality of the 1950s to the primal scream that is the pure rock of the contemporary. With the blues as her inspiration, luminaries such as Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin as her muses, she let it all hang out, in the truest sense of the term, and things were never quite the same again.
A little girl growing up in the hard-scrabble town of Port Arthur, Texas was an unlikely candidate for stardom, except for one thing: her determined ambition to get the hell out of there as soon as she possibly could. And she did; first to Austin and then cross-country to San Francisco, the fabled city by the bay - about as far from Port Arthur, figuratively and geographically, as she could get. She exploded on the scene as a unique entity; there was no one like her. She became a star. And then she died. Or more specifically, (spoiler alert) she overdosed on heroin.
If ever a story belonged on the stage, this is it. And writer Randy Johnson must have thought so too, because he wrote and directed A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN as a performance piece for an actress/singer, a backup ensemble and a rock band. Now an endeavor of this kind is about as risky as you can get in the theater. If an actor is to impersonate, or even interpret a powerhouse like Janis who is also a known historical figure - and recent history, at that - that actor must have a talent to match the subject, and those don't grow on trees. But Johnson must have found the orchard because the show is a triumph.
Kacee Clanton (Janis) has the audience in her pocket from her first entrance, and she only lets them loose when she is good and ready. Slimmer than the real Janis but with the same mane of unruly hair and the attitude of a rock diva, she convinces with seeming ease. Costumer Amy Clark's clothes are spot on for the entire company, and the illusion is complete. I could swear I smelled patchouli.
"Joplinaires" Cicily Daniels, Amma Osei, Tawny Dolley and Jennifer Leigh Warren are back-up singers with a mission, doubling as Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklinand Etta James, hitting notes and fashioning harmonies that are musically thrilling.
The onstage band, under the musical direction of Michael Moritz, is part of the ensemble, collectively a character in itself. And they wail.
And Clanton? She has the look, she has the manner, but does she have the voice? Oh yes. She does. From the whiskey-soaked rasp that is unmistakably Janis to the roof-rattling power that seems to come from the floor, she grabs a song and shakes the living daylights out of it until it's drained of every emotion and lays panting at her feet. Janis was unabashedly sexual, and it poured out of her music. Clanton portrays her wild side without so much as a flinch, full out. Nothing less would have worked.
The construction of the piece is fairly straightforward. A song, followed by Janis taking a moment to speak to the audience, breaking the fourth wall continuously as she talks about her childhood, her family, growing up in Port Arthur, then leaving home and making it big. Then another song, interspersed with solo turns by the Joplinaires as the giants of blues, singing their signature songs. Each performance builds toward the climax, and the audience is on its feet again and again, cheering, applauding, even, on occasion, singing along. It was a sight to see, the usually rather staid Hubbard Stage as a mosh pit. Attention, you Gen-Xers and millennials! If you want to see how your parents and grandparents did it, here's your chance to see what turned them on.
Speaking of the audience, the house was almost full for a Sunday evening performance, and looking around, I could see that they were predominately of a "certain age." There was a scattering of younger members, but most of these people could remember Janis in her heyday. And they loved her. They knew her music and her story, and for many, it was theirs as well. The mood was one of pure joy, and it was contagious. I am of the opinion that American audiences give standing ovations far too often, and usually at the end of a performance as an opportunity to break for the parking garage, but this was different. They stood and applauded again and again, and I must confess that I joined them. The ovations were well and truly deserved.
On my way home, I went over the show in my mind. The performances, both individually and as a company, were nothing short of superb. The costumes, lighting and sound were perfect. The audience left humming the songs, as did I. Everybody was happy. I was happy. But should I have been? Janis was, after all, a tragic figure who died senselessly at the impossibly young age of 27. On stage she talked about her unhappiness, her insecurities, but then she would sing, and all that pain seemed somehow contained, non-threatening, alleviated. But in the end it wasn't, and the show fails to address head-on that one crucial point. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe it didn't need to. But for me I think it did.
On the other hand, she did sing "Me and Bobby McGee."