Unruly wavy hair, bell-bottomed jeans, frilly tops, feathered boas, crazy hats, long necklaces, big sunglasses, and that raspy voice singing the blues almost make one believe that the queen of rock and roll herself is standing on the stage at McCarter Theatre.
Janis Joplin died after a drug overdose in 1970 at the age of 27. Even though she wasn’t on the music scene long, her influence helped define the generation that took part in the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. The musical “A Night With Janis Joplin” seeks to honor her life and legacy by capturing the musical influences that shaped the star and her distinct style of psychedelic rock.
Directed and written by Tony Award-nominated playwright Randy Johnson, this musical features an extensive cast of singers, musicians and actors. Kacee Clanton and Kelly McIntyre alternate in the lead role of Janis Joplin.
Johnson’s script includes little about Joplin’s upbringing and instead focuses on the music. Clanton and McIntyre highlight Joplin’s turbulent life by singing her greatest hits, including “Summertime,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Down on Me.”
The production also illustrates a quartet of blues singers who shaped Joplin and her musical career. At various points in the show, Joplin sings alongside Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Etta James. In one memorable scene, Joplin joins Aretha Franklin, played by Amma Osei, to lead to the audience onto their feet in a call-and-response song. Ossei also plays Nina Simone, who joins Joplin to sing “Little Girl Blue.”
In the role of Joplin, Kacee Clanton takes a swig of “Southern Comfort” and engages the audience by asking questions, Clanton is reprising a role she filled as an alternate in the 2013 Broadway production of the show. Her performance is filled with soliloquies about Joplin’s childhood, romantic life and eventual struggles with depression.
The musical is interspersed with examples of the outsized influence that blues music played on Joplin’s life. In one scene, Clanton speaks candidly about Joplin’s drug addiction and the way in which Joplin “felt like wanting to commit suicide the day after you were born.” Bessie Smith and her blues, however, “kept calling” Joplin back.
A brass section and guitarists Todd Olson and Steve Gibb back Clanton during her musical performances. The band plays a wide range of hits, from Joplin’s “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven” to Bessie Smith’s “You’re Down and Out.” Clanton and the band are accompanied by Tawny Dolley and Sylvia MacCalla, who play Etta James and Bessie Smith, respectively. Sharon Catherine Brown, who plays a blues singer, also backs Clanton and the band with vocals.
Baby boomers who grew up with Joplin’s music and blues lovers will enjoy the the tribute to some of the women who shaped the music of the 1960s and beyond.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” runs through October 29, 2017 at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton.