Review: ‘A Night With Janis Joplin’ at A.C.T. (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin, flanked by musicians Mike Smith and Michael Lent. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Fans of Janis Joplin, and, indeed, anybody who appreciates the blues, will enjoy this play at A.C.T., which is really more of a concert tribute. All the great songs are included, and Kacee Clanton, as Janice, is a musician of enormous skill and impact. Janis  cannot be recreated, but Clanton probably comes as close as possible and is thrilling in her own right.

Janis, of course, is a legend. She is also a cultural archetype: the diva of great artisty who sings her heart out but suffers terribly for being too sensitive, and whose personal story carries more than a whiff of the tragic.  Judy Garland. Edith Piaf. Bessie Smith. Maria Callas. Joplin is one of a noble company.

As a white blues singer, Joplin was unlike anything or anybody who came before. She made the blues her own, performing the art form at the highest imaginable level. Like her generational compadre, Bob Dylan, she mastered her chosen idiom to a degree that approached perfection, and had she lived as long as Dylan, she too might have ventured brilliantly into new territory. Those who knew her who spoke not only of her musicianship, but also of her extraordinary intellect and her artistic gifts which included the visual arts and literature, along with a great voice.

As a play, “A Night With Janis Joplin” isn’t much. Joplin interacts with no other characters, there is no dramatic action, and the autobiographical information that is relayed is written in rather a clumsy fashion. But, it is the music that counts. And when it comes to the music, the company delivers.

I’ve already described Kacee Clanton, who plays Janice, as a thrilling musician. She is, at times, uncanny in capturing the distinct timber of Janice’s voice, and captures a great deal of her spirit as well.

Equally good are the women who support Clanton as backup singers (“the Joplinaire’s”) and perform classic blues numbers in the personas of various great singers who inspired Joplin. All stand out, but a standout among standouts is the amazing Ashley Támar Davis. Before Clanton presents Janice’s rock’n’roll/blues reinterpretation, Davis performs Gershwin’s aria, “Summertime,” as written, with a full operatic performance that would surely draw bravas at the Metropolitan Opera House. Later, as “Blues Woman,” she delivers some amazing vocal gymnastics, rooted in a great depth of soul and characterization that is, well, as good as it gets.

All the supporting singers who variously take on impressions of Odetta, Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin are superb. In fact, it is quite a surprise to realize, after the show, that there were only six performers recreating the work of all these marvelous women. They are indeed impressive.

On opening night, it was pleasant to see one of Janice’s siblings (Laura) and other family members join the company on stage for the curtain call.

“A Night With Janis Joplin” is not a great piece of theatre, but it is full hearted, respectful, very entertaining, at times quite moving, and it delivers what was surely intended when A.C.T. decided to book it: a wonderful way to kick off the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

That’s groovy.

“A Night with Janis Joplin” plays at the Geary Theatre for an extended run through July 9th. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“A Night With Janis Joplin,” created, written, and directed by Randy Johnson. Produced in by A.C.T. in association with The Estate of Janis Joplin and Jeffrey Jampol of Jam, Inc. Choreographer Patricia Wilcox. Orchestrations: Len Rhodes. Music Director: Todd Olson. Scenic Designer: Rob Bissinger. Costume Designer: Amy Clark. Lighting Designers: Mike Baldassari and Gertjan Houben. Sound Designer: Ben Selke. Projection Designer: Darel Maloney. Wig Designer: Leah Loukas. Associate Director: Tyler Rhodes. Dance Supervisor: Jonathan Warren.

Cast:

Janis Joplin: Kacee Clanton. Joplinaire/Blues Singer/Chantel: Sharon Catherine Brown. Joplinaire/Aretha Franklin/Nina Simone/Blues Woman/Chantel: Ashley Támar Davis. Joplinaire/Etta James/Chantel: Tawny Dolley. Joplinaire/Odetta/Bessie Smith/Chantel: Sylvia Maccalla.

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