with Janis Joplin"
Produced by: San Jose Rep and Zach Theatre
Featuring: Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin, Cari Hutson, Shinnerrie Jackson, Tricky Jones, Tiffany Mann
Directed by: Randy Johnson
When: September 5 through October 6, 2013
Where: San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, California
Tickets:$28-$79. (50 percent off for 30 and younger or fulltime students.) Visit www.SJRep.com or call 408-367-7255
Early on in "One Night With Janis Joplin," Janis describes herself as "just another white chick singing the blues."
Yeah, right. Like The Beatles were just another band.
Janis Joplin was the white chick singing the blues. Heavily influenced by Etta James, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone, she was instrumental in bringing the blues to white folks. But she could also sing country, and soul, and rock.
Randy Johnson, who wrote and directed, has crafted a production that melds the story of Joplin's early life in Port Arthur, Texas, with her later career as a no-holds-barred rock-and-blues singer.
Joplin's mother was a singer who turned down the opportunity to go to Broadway (where this show is headed next), but she made up for it by buying cast recordings of every new musical that came along, playing them constantly in the house, where Janis and her sister and brother sang with them.
Janis dabbled with painting, and folk music, but it was the blues singers who really attracted her, and she dropped out of college and headed for San Francisco, joining the burgeoning California blues and rock scene.
Kacee Clanton, as Janis, can really belt out the tunes, just like Joplin, but I was impressed that she could also act, taking us inside the head of a girl apparently mature for her years, but at the same time emotionally undeveloped. She wanted love but never felt satisfied by the love of men, which just couldn't compare to what she could get from her audience during a performance.
The show starts with Janis belting out a cracking version of "Tell Mama (what you want)," and here Clanton showed Janis at her rocking, high-energy best. The influence of her mother's fascination with Broadway musicals comes next in her soulful rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime," from "Porgy and Bess."
The influence of Etta James, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone is brought to life by Tiffany Mann as "The Blues Singer," in "Summertime" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out." Mann has a terrific voice, and a great presence. You can see why Janis loved that kind of music and wanted to make it her own.
Of course no show about Janis Joplin would be complete without "Little Piece of My Heart," and Clanton totally nailed it. I don't know how a person's vocal chords can survive the strain of that song, but like Janis, she just kept on singing.
The band was excellent and looked the part of '60s rockers with suitable amounts of facial hair. I would have liked a bit more volume from the guitars, but they did allow Janis to shine through without deafening the audience. The psychedelic stage backdrop and projections of lava lamps (50 years old this year) helped to transport us back to the days of tie-dyed T-shirts, the summer of love and rock and roll.
The first half of the show builds to a climax with Mann as Aretha Franklin singing "Spirit In The Dark" and Janis joining her in an all-out frenzy of black/white soul.
The second half dragged a bit with slower bluesy numbers, until "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Ball and Chain" lit up the theater again, with some great work from the band.
For any fans of Janis Joplin, this is a show not to be missed. For any fans of white chicks singing the blues, even if you were born after Janis died, this is a show not to be missed.