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“Janis knew more than I did about ‘how it was’, but she lacked enough armor for the inevitable hassles. She was open and spontaneous enough to get her heart trampled with a regularity that took me thirty years to experience or understand. [..] Did we compliment each other? Yes, but not often enough.”
– Grace Slick, Somebody to Love? A Rock-and-Roll Memoir (1998)
This ACT opening night was different than others. It wasn’t just the fact that I walked right past Tracy Chapman as I retrieved my ticket from the box office. No, it was also the fact that as I made my way to my seat in the mezzanine, it looked as if I were the only audience member under the age of 50. (Thank God I saw Lily Janiak there to put my mind at ease.) Before I sat down, an old man tapped me on the shoulder just so he could tell me that he saw Janis Joplin perform live way-back-when. The women sitting to my left shared fascinating stories with one another about seeing Janis, and now having to traverse life’s ups and downs with their kids and grandkids. A few silver-haired audience members actually showed up in tie-dyed shirts.
Eventually a few Millennial-aged couples showed up with young kids (clearly the parents had no idea how frequent the word “fuck” was about to be used), but it was clear that this night was for those who could actually remember being there; those for whom the ‘60s was more than just some decade Hollywood always recreates by simply playing The Youngbloods’ version of “Get Together”; those to whom you never say “This is(n’t) just like what America was going through back then!” because they were actually there back then. It isn’t as if the ACT were trying to market the show exclusively to Baby Boomers, but that’s who showed up en masse for the opening.
As I settled into my seat whilst a collection of ‘60s standards played over the speakers (“Now available in one great set!”), I made a mental note to watch the reactions of the folks around me. I wanted to see if the action on stage would viscerally connect with them as I took notes on the artistic merits of the piece. This isn’t something I usually do, as I want my focus to be entirely on the play, even as I try to jot down notes. But from the opening number to the end, it becomes abundantly clear that production – scripted though it may be – isn’t a play at all; it’s a concert.
Her name was Janis Joplin. She never got to see age 30, but her throbbing vocals, sincere lyrics, and instantly-recognizable stage presence have continued to resonate nearly 50 years after her sudden death. But for those of us who never had the chance to witness her live, now we have the chance.
Over the course of 2 ½ hours, Janis bares her soul and sings her heart out as she shares her life story with the audience gathered. As she does, she’s eventually joined by the spiritual and physical manifestations of the women who influenced her: Etta James, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, and even Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. It’s a concert that never could happen before and, as we learn, never will happen again.
There’s a reason I said that this is a concert and not a play. Yes, it’s a scripted work performed by actors who were directed on stage to portray fictionalized versions of characters (based on real people). But writer/director Randy Johnson wasn’t making a biographical musical like Jersey Boys, he set out to make a Janis Joplin tribute band. (For those who don’t know: a cover band just does a famous musical catalogue; a tribute band tries to recreate the experience of the act they’re imitating.) Like a concert, all of the vocals are delivered into handheld microphones and all of the music is performed by the on-stage musicians. In spite of the “ghosts” of Joplin’s influences joining her on stage, we audience members are supposed to believe that what we’re seeing is happening “live” in 1970 – complete with audience interaction.
As a tribute concert, it works incredibly well. As a theatre production, not as well. The past/present hybrid has been tried before (Roger Guenveur Smith’s A Huey P. Newton Story featured the title character extolling his life story and manifesto to an audience who wouldn’t have been alive when he wrote it.), but here it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a bit misleading for this production to market itself as a musical play when it only meets the flimsiest definition of that description. The only sliver of a narrative comes near the end, and it involves one of the laziest clichés of biographical dramatizations. Joplin tells us the song she’s about to sing is from her yet-to-be-released album. The album in question would be her posthumously-released Pearl, and the song – “I’m Going to Rock My Way to Heaven” – would be considered “lost” until Johnson added it to this show. It’s a tired trope that puts too much emphasis on where the subject is about to go next narratively, and it insults audience intelligence. It’s akin to writing a script about Abraham Lincoln boldly declaring that he has an idea that will advance society in ways heretofore unknown, “And I want to share it with you all… just as soon as I get back from the theatre!”
Still, the concert we get is a damn-good one. Kacee Clanton has made something of a career playing Janis Joplin, having done two previous productions of A Night with…, and having also appeared in Love, Janis. So the fact that she nails her performance here should come as no surprise. She powers her way through Joplin’s biggest hits like a pro, but when she belts out “Piece of My Heart,” I had to stop writing notes to sing along. And she’s not alone: at the start and finish of the show she’s joined by “The Joplinaires” – four Black women who reflect Joplin’s influence from blues and doo-wop groups like The Chantels, who the Joplinaires later portray. In fact, all four women (Sharon Catherine Brown, Ashley Támar Davis, Tawny Dolley, and Sylvia MacCalla) later appear as different singers to whom Joplin acknowledges a great creative debt. It would be impossible for me to single out a single one, because each one brought down the house. Let’s just say that if the show had been only about these ladies no one – I mean, NO ONE – would be disappointed. Kudos to music director Todd Olson for bringing it all together, and the on-stage musicians who, sadly, aren’t named in the program or the ACT website.
Further praise goes to costumer Amy Clark, wig-maker Leah Loukas, projectionist Darrel Maloney, set designer Rob Bissinger, lighting designers Mike Baldassari & Gertjan Houben, and sound designer Ben Selke. They all do top-notch work at bringing this imaginary concert to life.
Maybe it’s because “Piece of My Heart” has always been a personal favorite, but I thought the second act lacked a bit of the energy from the first. It’s not bad, mind you, but when end the first half with a Janis-Aretha duet of “Spirit in the Dark,” it’s kinda hard to top. Still, that and the flimsy narrative attempts are the only thing the show has going against it. As I watched the audience members around me, I saw that some were unable to move as energetically as they used to, but they still had the power to sing along. Granted, there were a few who appeared disappointed that there were no proper “play” elements at work, but they were just a few.
If you’re looking for a traditional narrative musical about the life of one of the most influential singers in music history, you might be disappointed. If you’re looking for a show that’s the next-best-thing to her singing directly to you, this might be just what you need.
A Night with Janis Joplin is scheduled to run until the 9th of July at ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.