BWW Review: Soulful, Nostalgic A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN Rocks Laguna Playhouse
by Michael Quintos
Admittedly, as a Gen-X'er with a stronger preference for showtunes and 90's Pop and R&B, I know very little about singer-songwriter Janis Joplin, the music legend many regarded as the "Queen of Rock-and-Roll," and whose signature raspy voice and hippie-chic style became representative symbols of 60's counter-culture (which, of course, became mainstream in its own right). I also shamefully admit that I know even less about her music, except, of course, for her definitive version of "Piece of My Heart," which many later artists or a multitude of American Idol contestants have also mimicked and covered over the years.
But aside from knowing her status as one of rock music's greatest artists, earning her a place in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, and that she made history with her participation at the Woodstock music festival , I also know that her life---like those of so many of her equally legendary peers---was cut tragically short, reportedly due to an accidental drug overdose in 1970 at just 27 years old. Her posthumously-released fourth album even went to number one on the charts a mere three months after her death.
So, suffice it to say, it is a bit of a shock that the more tragic parts of her real-life story or even the specific paths she took to gain stardom didn't quite make it into A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, the 2013 musical that ran on Broadway for 141 performances before closing after a four-month run. More akin to a tribute concert rather than actual musical theater, a new regional production of the show continues at the Laguna Playhouse through September 10, 2017.
If you're looking to get a definitive biography-slash-musical (in the vein of the Carole King musical BEAUTIFUL), then you may be disappointed. Right from the start, the show is presented as a one-night-only Joplin concert (perhaps even her last one), where the legend---played by the undeniably superb Kelly McIntyre---sings many of her hits accompanied by a terrific, awesome-sounding eight-piece rock band and horn section, and punctuated by some extraordinary gospel-like back-up singers called the Joplinaires.
In between truly remarkable renditions of her hits and lots of gulps from a conveniently reachable whiskey bottle, Joplin reminisces about the many female artists---all of whom are some of the greatest Soul, Jazz, and Blues artists of all time---that have been huge influences for her musically and have "helped" her during dark times, first as young woman growing up in Port Arthur, Texas and later as a headlining recording artist.
Despite this somewhat story-fied set-up and some lightly expositional monologuing about a life spent coping with sadness and fearing loneliness---which are treated as mid-song banter orated directly towards us, the "concert" audience---the show barely resembles the typical jukebox musical, favoring the less-talk, more-singing approach. The concert-like format, as one might expect, is met with the delight of its rapt, nostalgia-baited audience of mostly baby-boomers during the show's recent opening night performance. Song after song, whether sung by McIntyre or one of her many muses, the audience is ecstatic---and rightly so.
Why? Because these ladies can saaaaang.
While it's slightly perplexing that the somewhat sanitized, lightly treading show barely explores Joplin's rise to rock infamy or why she eventually succumbed to her self-harming demons, it's hard to deny that A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN is still one thoroughly entertaining show at its core. Whether you're a longtime fan of her music or a relative newbie like me, this concert... er, I mean, stage musical will have you bopping your head and applauding vigorously after every single musical performance. More than anything else, the show's raison d'être seems to be anchored in allowing its spectacular cast to show off their singing talents---a great consolation if you're going to skimp on the narrative.
Eschewing the expected biographical book musical format found in traditional jukebox musicals, creator, writer, and director Randy Johnson instead presents a theater piece disguised as a nostalgic rock-and-blues concert, mixing Joplin's booze-fueled set with songs performed by the many women she grew up idolizing, all of whom happen to be African-American.
"I sound like a white chick who sings the blues," Joplin declares matter-of-factly, unapologetic that she sounds like herself and not the muses that influenced her.
As she fondly recollects spinning and "wearing out" their vinyl albums as an escape, Joplin speaks of connecting with all these artists' music deeply both in the messages of their songs and the aching struggles they expressed in their raw, outwardly emotional performances that touched on everything from heartbreak to feeling less than... feelings that Joplin can truly identify with. Their music certainly informed and influenced the way Joplin, too, performs---which naturally manifests in that explosive, husky, and uninhibited singing style that's definitely hard to ignore.
From blues singers and soul chanteuses to 50's girl groups like the Chantels, all these women recorded music that allowed Joplin to cope with the harshness of life and to help soothe some of her pain, and then channelling those same emotions into her own musical prowess.
"They tell it like it is," she surmises. "People like their Blues singers miserable."
Luckily for the audience at the Laguna Playhouse, Joplin's muses spring to life before our eyes to perform that very music that inspired her. One by one, the ghosts of Etta James, the Chantels, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, and even a few unnamed Blues singers step forward to sing the bejesus out of their respective songs. Even a younger, still sprightly Aretha Franklin shows up at the end of the first act to duet with Joplin, getting the audience to join in rousing chorus. Who knew that a stage musical would find an excuse to pair Joplin with Franklin together and arouse such communally joyful hooting and hollering?
So, of course, it goes without saying that much of the enjoyment of the show can be attributed to McIntyre's co-stars, who all deserve kudos and our loud admiration for their stellar performances that sometimes actually even overshadow the importance of the title character. In a pleasant surprise that found me getting either teary eyed or antsy to get up and cheer, a great huge chunk of the show is actually relegated to performances from Joplin's idols. Perhaps the show should actually even be retitled A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN'S INSPIRATIONS---because, wow, they were truly amazing.
When not appearing on stage as the Joplinaires or as the doo-wop girl group the Chantels, the ultra-talented foursome of Sharon Catherine Brown, Tawny Dolley, Carol Hatchett, and Amma Osei take turns reappearing on stage as one of Joplin's musical teachers who taught her the Blues. Dolley appears first as Soul/R&B star Etta James singing "Tell Mama" with McIntyre's Joplin. Hatchett then emerges as Blues singer and civil rights activist Odetta, singing a stirring "Down On Me." Later Hatchett brings the legendary Bessie Smith (and her signature voice) to life with "Nobody Knows When You're Down and Out." Osei made the entire audience smile as the sassy Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin leading Joplin and the audience into a gospel frenzy with "Spirit in the Dark." Later Osei gave me goosebumps as singer Nina Simone in her duet with Joplin, "Little Girl Blue."
And then there's the evening's MVP, Brown, who with her powerful pipes basically slaaays every appearance, particularly in her belt-tastic, gut-wrenching performance of "Today I Sing the Blues" that had everyone at the edge of their seat before bursting into a long, loud mid-show standing ovation, which she more than deserves. She. Was. Awesome.
By the time all four muses come together in "Kosmic Blues/I Shall Be Released" it's like witnessing a triumphant reunion of a divalicious quartet sent from the heavens. What's even more spectacular is that each performer doesn't usurp the other vocally, but rather they all harmonize then break out individually but still remain a gorgeous sounding unit.
Seriously, if you're not at all into Joplin's music---no worries. Come to A NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin anyway, because you will be treated to some of the most extraordinary voices singing some of the most extraordinary soul, jazz, and blues music that you wouldn't have expected in a show marketed as a Joplin/rock show.
For her part, McIntyre gloriously embodies a riveting version of Joplin, complete with a weed-tinged accent that reveals both a vulnerable girl and an easy-going but still hard-partying broad. She speaks lovingly about her influences like an excited child espousing about her fandom. But then she sings---and it's a woman engulfed in spiritual and unbridled expression, singing with deep pathos, explosive insight, and fierce defiance. Her renditions of signature Joplin songs like "Cry Baby," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," and, yes, "Piece of My Heart" entrances the audience. Her takes on the more hopeful "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven" and the cheeky "Mercedes Benz" are lots of fun.
Visually and technically, the show is top-notch as well. The on-stage band led by musical director Todd Olson feel and sound authentically rock-and-soul, providing pleasingly rhythmic accompaniment for the ladies throughout the night. Brian Prather's bi-level set looks era-appropriate in its mixture of 60's flower-power softness and weathered metallic hardness, straight out of a retro House of Blues concert stage. Ryan O'Gara's lighting design paired with Darrel Maloney's projections create beautiful eye-popping tableaus for each scene, while Amy Clark's period-perfect costumes envelop the cast as if they stepped out of the pages of vintage issues of Rolling Stone.
While I do continue to wish for a more fleshed-out biographical story to have emerged from A NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin, the resulting show, particularly at the Laguna Playhouse, is still worthy of checking out. Sure, a few foreshadowing references to a challenging upbringing and early adulthood that had her seeking solace and kinship with Blues singers doesn't quite paint a complete enough picture, but the retro-nostalgia of Joplin's music showcased alongside the blues music that influenced her---all performed by an incredible cast and backed by a rousing band---is certainly reason enough to experience this show live.
And even though it could be argued that the show's weak narrative and its choice to highlight a curated set of Joplin's influences also inadvertently brings to the forefront that old, somewhat touchy controversy that purports that many rock-and-roll musicians (like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.) allegedly built their careers by appropriating African-American music styles and repackaging/repurposing them for a larger audience, A NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin---whether purposely or accidentally---instead gives a much needed spotlight on artists that may not have similar notoriety as the gal above the title. For me personally, I walked away actually wanting to know more about Odetta and Bessie Smith and expanding my limited knowledge of Etta James and Nina Simone. If they were instrumental in the musical education of Joplin, then why not go straight to the source material?
A musical or not, this "concert" is an enjoyable night out.