By Jackie Moe
Rarely is the advice “bring earplugs” given when attending a musical. But Kelly McIntyre, the title actress of “A Night with Janis Joplin,” recommends it to theatergoers for the Broadway musical.
“This is more of a rock concert than a musical show, so it’s best to come prepared to rock out,” said McIntyre.
For nearly two years, McIntyre has been the theatrical medium for the rock-and-roll spirit and songs of Janis Joplin in the Tony Award-nominated musical. The show will open with previews at the Laguna Playhouse on Wednesday, Aug. 16, with regular performances running Aug. 20 through Sept. 10.
The Boston-born actress and singer said she has enjoyed filling the shoes of the late rock icon since she was cast in the lead role for the first national tour in 2016. But McIntyre wants to make sure that audiences do not expect a Joplin impersonator.
“Janis being an icon obviously comes with a heavy task of doing her justice and not tarnishing her legendary pedestal,” McIntyre said. “So the hardest part for me is finding a balance portraying Janis in the way that the audience is expecting me to portray her, but also being myself. The director (Randy Johnson) didn’t want a Janis copycat. He wanted a musician-singer-artist who has Janis come through them. So there are still little bits of myself in there.”
Written and directed by Johnson, the original Broadway musical opened at the Lyceum Theatre in October 2013 and ran for four months for a total of 141 performances. The musical is presented in a narrated form, with Joplin conversing with the audience about her life, musical influences and songs – including her biggest hits “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Mercedes Benz.”
“There are no scenes; there is no dialogue,” McIntyre said. “There are just monologues of Janis talking you through her childhood, her inspiration and her journey as she became who she became. As she brings up these different parts of her life, a musical number will happen fluidly through the story.”
Joplin also brings various blues, gospel and rock artists to the stage to perform songs from their catalogs, including Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith. Actresses Kristin Piacentile, Sharon Catherine Brown, Tawny Dolley, Carol Hatchett and Amma Osei take on the various roles.
“My favorite part is when I sing ‘Piece of My Heart,’ because it’s the first number in the show that the audience recognizes universally, and everyone gets out of their seat and sings along and you feel like a total rock star,” McIntyre said. “I love when I get to interact with the band, too, because they are amazing musicians, so it’s been an honor to sing with them.”
Decked out in ’60s hippie flair, including retro rugs and concert posters, the stage will feature a seven-piece band and a platform for the singers. Various photos and videos from Joplin’s short life and career will be projected on a large screen behind the band.
Unlike most musicals, the audience is encouraged to not only sing along, but stand up and interact with the actors when prompted.
“You could hear the audience singing and we love that, because it lets us know we’re doing our job right,” McIntyre said. “We want them to get up and sing with us, rather than sit there and twiddle their thumbs for two hours. Clap and talk back to us even. We want you to feel more like you’re at a rock concert or festival in the 1970s than at a show.”
McIntyre added that she likes to call the show a “tribute musical” rather than a jukebox musical, because it pays homage to Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at the age of 27, through her music.
“It’s a very immersive conversational piece. It really is more like a concert celebrating her music and the artists that inspired her and their music, rather than tell her tragic story through a theatrical show.”