Janis Joplin sings the blues

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday June 21, 2017
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It's probably not a destination in need of revisiting, but without it, the journey feels incomplete. In the world according to "A Night with Janis Joplin," perhaps the biggest drawback of growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, is that it didn't have an art museum. Biographies, documentaries, and Janis herself in TV interviews have talked about her miserable teenage years, where her fellow students sucked away at her self-esteem. It shaped the needy woman she became, but is a part of her life that has been redacted from this concert/musical now at ACT's Geary Theater.

The insatiable needs born of that time ultimately could not be satisfied by fame, adoring audiences, or romantic encounters. And we know how that turned out, although this hybrid theater piece sneaks in a single reference to a drug problem before ignoring her unsuccessful struggle against heroin addiction. But since we already know all that, the instigators of "A Night with Janis Joplin" have chosen a different way to package her songs.

The primary instigators are Joplin's siblings, Michael and Laura, who commissioned writer-director Randy Johnson, with credits for bio-plays about Mike Tyson and Patsy Cline, to spotlight their sister in a light apart from the well-known bad times. The main conceit of the show is Joplin's love of the blues. I mean, she really loved the blues. And if I haven't stressed it enough already, which the musical is certainly not derelict about doing, the blues were the closest thing to a Bible that Joplin worshipped.

The show's cleverest device is to juxtapose songs that became part of Joplin's repertoire with facsimiles of their original versions. A supporting company of four accomplished singers variously play Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, and Odetta. As Tawny Dolley in a lounge singer's cocktail dress sings "Tell Mama" her way, we see how Joplin put her own spin on it dressed in her favored hippie-flavored garb. This happens again with Nina Simone (Ashley Tamar Davis) on "Little Girl Blue," Odetta (Sylvia Maccalla) on "Down on Me," and a character identified only as Blues Woman (Davis again) who sings "Summertime" in a traditional hymn-like style as Joplin takes over with her soaring version of the "Porgy and Bess" classic.

The basic set-up for the show is that we are at a Joplin concert, and her between-song patter has her veering into different tangents that may or may not be related to the songs that immediately surround it. (And there is far too much of the "How ya doin', San Francisco?" kind of pep-building imprecations.) We learn that chore day in the Joplin household was usually accompanied by one of her mother's Broadway cast albums, with the kids acting out shows as they scrubbed, ironed, and vacuumed. When "West Side Story" was on the phonograph, her brother would play Tony, her sister was Maria, and Janis was Anita �" and Bernardo and the Sharks and the Jets. These are small, fun, intimate, details.

But after the script has Joplin moving to San Francisco, the between-song conversations with the audience turn into jibber-jabber, a conflicting series of platitudes about life, audiences, and men (but not women, as Joplin's none-too-secret bisexuality is ignored). While Johnson had access to the archives that her siblings have amassed, it's hard to believe that Janis ever spoke some of the words assigned to her here. "People come up to me and ask, 'Do you think you'll die a young and unhappy death?'" she tells us. No! she proclaims, because she's got a lot of living to do. Joplin's death at age 27 is not part of this narrative.

Mainly, though, the purpose of the show is to give us the chance to have the Janis Joplin experience. Accompanied by an eight-piece band, Kacee Clanton approaches the combination of finesse and abandon of Joplin's shredding vocals, if not quite taking us over the mountaintop, but that's easier to buy into than an unconvincing spoken delivery. And it's a bit awkward when, just after Clanton performs Joplin's mega-hit "Piece of My Heart," Sharon Catherine Brown as an anonymous blues singer tops it with an authentically scorching "Today I Sing the Blues" that finally takes the audience to a place that the rest of the show can't quite deliver.


"A Night with Janis Joplin" will run at ACT's Geary Theater through July 9. Tickets are $20-$130. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.