The soul of a little girl lost screams with passion in A Night with Janis Joplin. More of a musical revue than a narrative play, the production as staged in the Alley Theatre’s Hubbard Theatre comes off like the one rock concert you never saw but that you never want to end.
Dick Cavett, on whose television show Joplin was a constant guest, described her as a cross between “Lead Belly, a steam locomotive, and Bessie Smith.” A Night with Janis Joplin, written and directed by Randy Johnson, unfolds on a stage designed to look like an intimate performance venue.
There’s a second level in front of a screen beholden with psychedelic imagery. Steps, the rise of which look like amplifiers with knobs and a red light on the right side, lead down to the stage. The stage proper has a carpeted area with a mic stand that’s surrounded by a bassist, two guitarists, a horn section (sax, trumpet, trombone), a keyboardist and a drummer.
The performer playing Janis, Kacee Clanton, channels the Port Arthur native right down to the spine of her wavy hair and raspy soulful voice. The play divides the songs between Janis and her band and an assortment of blues singers that influenced and shaped Joplin’s style: Nina Simone, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and The Chantels.
One of the coolest things about A Night with Janis Joplin is how you hear different takes on the same song. A performance by Odetta (Cicily Daniels) of “Down on Me” plows along steady, forcefully and slow. This is followed by the Joplin rendition of the same song at breakneck speed. Another double take happens with “Summertime,” and it’s mesmerizing. The femme performers playing the various blues legends change costume from time to time to appear as back-up singers The Joplinaires.
The audience kept leaping to their feet with enthusiastic applause after each number. Clanton’s verbal recreation of Joplin’s laid-back speech patterns included references to such Port Arthur landmarks as the Gates Library and Ted’s Record Shop. Joplin’s costume changes went from groovy and beyond, and included a feather boa that informed her late career trademark look.
The truth is that Joplin left very little in the way of recorded performances for future generations other than multiple records. Hendrix and Morrison, along with Joplin members of the 27-club, had films released in their time or shortly after their demise. Joplin appeared, with Big Brother and the Holding Company, in one song from Monterey Pop (1968) and was not in the original release of Woodstock (1970), even though she was one of the headliners. (The subsequent 40th anniversary release of Woodstock cleared the rights for an appearance by Joplin, edited into the original cut of the movie, but it was not one of her best performances, having spent the day drinking and shooting heroin.) The concert movie documentary Festival Express that chronicled a Canadian rock festival train tour, one that included Joplin and The Band and The Grateful Dead, from the late-60s and was only released in 2003.
The dialogue spoken by Clanton includes references to “full tilt boogie” and “kosmic blues,” which are also the names for Joplin’s two bands once she embarked on a solo career. The play focuses mainly on the music and not the ups and downs of Joplin’s personal life.
Staged like a rock concert the play ends with a well-deserved curtain call followed by an encore performance of “Mercedes Benz,” the last song Joplin ever recorded. Joplin died in October of 1970 and her last LP, Pearl, was released in January of 1971. “Me and Bobby McGee” off the Pearl album rocketed to number one on the pop charts. At the time it was the second posthumous single to achieve that distinction after Otis Redding’s 1968 “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”