Relive a Raucous Era With Janis Joplin

By Daniella Walsh

They arrived in tie-dyed T-shirts, billowing tunics, bellbottoms, headbands, peace symbols and beads, tons of beads, filing into the Laguna Playhouse until there was nary an empty seat.

Men and women who might actually have attended the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 or Woodstock in 1969 came to groove to “A Night with Janis Joplin,” which opened this past Sunday at the local theater for a three-week run. Artistic director Ann E. Wareham and executive director Ellen Richard got with the program, introducing the show in haute-hippie regalia.

Amid an unprecedented crowd and intensifying stage lights, Kelly McIntyre strode on stage clad in crystal encrusted bellbottoms, flowing tunic and tons of whirling hair belting out “Tell Mama” and “My Baby.”

Joplin had arrived and she did not disappoint. Right-off, it became clear that McIntyre is not an impersonator. Between Joplin’s signature shrieks and groans, McIntyre’s own rather beautiful voice emerged, inviting speculation on such talents off-stage. (During some performances Kristen Piacentile will substitute for McIntyre.)

And the band cooked. Consisting of music director Todd Olson on keyboard, Mark Chosak and Michael Praisler on guitar, Aiden Moore on bass, Aaron O. Smith on trumpet, Patrick Lenertz on trombone, David Catalan on sax and Shannon Ford on drums, the group catches the soul of the music and the freewheeling spirit of the time.

There’s not enough praise for the cast representing the blues, gospel and folk legends who were Joplin’s musical inspiration. They rock. First, The Chantels (cast of four), then Etta James, (Tawny Dolley) Odetta, Bessie Smith (both Carol Hatchett), Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and the Blues Woman (all Amma Osei).

As an unnamed Blues Singer, Sharon Catherine Brown gained a rare accolade on opening night when she elicited a standing ovation in mid-performance. Equipped with gospel singer pipes, she sang her heart as a woman whose daily life is ruled by the blues.

Director Randy Johnson and music director Todd Olson’s seamless arrangements bring those “Great Ladies of Song” to life without overshadowing Joplin, the self-described white chick singing the blues.

More kudos go to scenic designer Brian Prather, lighting designer Ryan O’Gara and sound designer Rafe Carlotto. Their combined effort create an atmosphere that is authentic and yet timeless, transporting the audience into another universe. Opening night was one were everyone, regardless of color, had soul and no one needed to tread Main Beach to air their points of view.

McIntyre’s Joplin begins her life story in 1943 in Port Arthur, Tex., where she morphed from an awkward, lonely high school kid attracted to the blues to an eventual rock star and the highs and lows inherent in that occupation.

The audience also learns that Joplin, a Capricorn, loved visual arts including African art and was a credible painter.

During the first act, McIntyre delves into her subject through songs such as “My Baby,” “Down on Me” and “Piece of my Heart” and describes feeling tentative about her growing fame as it, at times, threatens to overwhelm her.

The ups and downers, hinted at by increasingly longer swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort and darker stage lighting, might be too subtle for those familiar with Joplin’s biography.

But, her growing loneliness becomes palpable when she notes that she “makes love to the audience, but goes home alone.” Drug use is subtly alluded to when McIntyre remarks that singing is fading from her life, but that Bessie Smith keeps calling her back. Joplin pays verbal tribute to her idol, who died destitute in 1936 and was interred into an unmarked grave. “People like to see singers be miserable and blues singers to die,” laments Joplin. Her own demise from an overdose of drugs at age 27 is left to the imagination.

“A Night with Janis Joplin,” with the book written by Randy Johnson, first premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2011. It went on to the Cleveland Playhouse, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Pasadena Playhouse and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater before landing on Broadway in 2013. Mary Bridget Davies garnered a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the show.

“Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends, worked hard all my life….”

Sure bet some in audience drove off in one or the other, tie-dye and all.