A few years ago, I saw Love, Janis at the Alley Theatre. It was one of the best performances I had ever seen, as the actress channeled Janis Joplin and her songs with aplomb. But after seeing A Night With Janis Joplin, I have to say—this takes the cake. (It received six standing ovations by the end of the performance!)
The musical opens at a concert, complete with a rock band and dancing backup singers. The atmosphere is electric, and that excitement level never wanes throughout the performance. You start to understand how she created revolutionary music, yet still connected to the musical predecessors she admired. It is easy to see how for her, “Music is everything.”
With superlative musical performances, period costumes, and set designs, writer and director Randy Johnson orchestrates a perfect storm of music, monologue and movement that engages the audience the entire performance. If this show doesn’t take a piece of your heart, nothing will.
From the moment the music starts, Kacee Clanton, who plays Joplin, captivates the audience with her mesmerizing performance as one of the most influential music icons. This is the role of a lifetime, and with her striking physical resemblance to Joplin and uncanny ability to embody her unique and influential vocals, it seems as though Clanton was destined to play this role. She is not only pitch perfect when singing, but also captures Joplin’s conversational style: casual and unimpressed with the stifling conventions of the world around her.
As outstanding as Clanton’s performance is, A Night With Janis Joplin is not a one-woman show. Other historic performers who influenced Joplin take the stage, including Bessie Smith (Cicily Daniels), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone—fantastically and unforgettably portrayed by Amma Osei. Along with Jennifer Leigh Warren, these women play multiple roles, having to fill the tall order of alternating between being Joplin’s high energy back-up singers to icons. Not only do these performances give an understanding to Joplin's music, but the individual and group performances of these women are absolutely phenomenal.
One of the major themes in the show is loneliness—not only for Joplin, but for everyone—and the way loneliness was a part of Joplin’s emotional spectrum that inspired her to write such powerful songs. When Joplin states, “The blues are a bad woman feeling good” you know what she means. The writing is utterly believable: Joplin calls her father “a secret intellectual," confesses that when she got a library card that “it was like the universe opened up” and that when she looked at art books in a museum-less Port Arthur, it was like she had come alive.
The split-level set, which allows for a dramatic, silver-sequined entrance by Aretha Franklin, as well as moments of shadowy images of Joplin’s beloved group The Chantels, serves as a model of efficiency as it dramatizes how these musical icons psychologically backed Joplin up and continuously sustained her musical productivity until her untimely death.
From her bell-bottomed outfits to her whisky-swigging moments, no detail seems to be missing from A Night With Janis Joplin. Not a gesture, not a dance move, not a note. When the standing ovation for “Piece of My Heart” was in full throttle, I was right there with everyone on my feet, marveling at Clanton’s performance. Many of the songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” were so entrancing, you thought you were watching Janis Joplin in all of her raspy and raw-throated glory.
Artistic Director Gregory Boyd is absolutely right when he says, “She was unique, she was hugely influential, but mostly, she was that rarest of things—a performer whose honesty and feelings were undeniable, and who left something of herself in everyone who heard her.” And for an artist who is strongly remembered for her untimely death at the age of 27, this vibrant show reminds us that when Joplin was alive, she was really alive, a card-carrying Romantic who prized emotion and feeling over anything else. When she says, “I just want to feel everything I can,” you want to join her cult of emotion. Whether she knew it or not, Joplin was a musical feminist, cheering for “the everyday woman.” There is still no one quite like her.
Aug 19–Sept 18. $31–72. 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. alleytheatre.org