A Night with Janis Joplin
Kacee Clanton as the iconic Janis Joplin. Background (L-R): Mike Smith and Michael Lent. Photo: Kevin Berne.

A Night with Janis Joplin

Kacee Clanton sings and acts a fabulous Janis.

Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson
Starring Kacee Clanton, Sharon Catherine Brown, Ashley Támar Davis, Tawney Dolley, Sylvia MacCalla
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, until July 9, 2017
http://www.act-sf.org/

A cross between a musical profile and a rock and roll show, Randy Johnson’s “A Night with Janis Joplin” is undoubtedly entertaining. The best aspect of the evening is Kacee Clanton, who does a fabulous Janis. She has the deep throaty voice, the slightly frowsy look and the small sexy dance moves. And she sings many of Janis’s greatest hits, accompanied by four terrific back-up singers, the Joplinaires (Sharon Catherine Brown, Ashley Támar Davis, Tawney Dolley and Sylvia MacCalla) and a hot band, who play all the original arrangements (Todd Olson, musical director and keyboardist). What Janis fans wouldn’t want to hear her wonderful renditions of “Summertime,” “Cry Baby,” “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” just to name a few?

Yet the production lacks the spontaneity of a true 1960s rock show where anything might happen. In those days, the order of songs was not set in stone, the length of the concert was not predetermined, another rock star might walk on stage to sing with the band, or a brawl might break out .“A Night with Janis Joplin” is also light on the details of Janis’ life. We do learn a bit about her, when Kacee, as Janis, talks to the audience, as Janis often did in her live shows. Kacee delivers these interludes extremely well as she talks about Janis’s life in Texas, how she first came to San Francisco, her personal philosophy, her drug use, but mostly, her visceral connection with the blues and the singers who profoundly influenced her style and her life.

The talented vocalists who sing back-up as the Joplinaires each appear and sing their hearts out as they interpret Janis’s favorites, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and that great doo-wop girl group, the Chantels. Then we listen to Janis Joplin’s versions of the same songs. It’s hard not to be impressed all over again by how Janis made these modern classics her own by delivering unique and enhanced versions of songs and arrangements that one thought couldn’t be improved.

One of Janis favorite song writers was Jerry Ragovoy, and she covered many of his songs, including “Piece of My Heart”, co-written with Bert Berns and originally recorded by Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister), “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” (originally recorded by Lorraine Ellison), “Cry Baby” and “My Baby” both originally by Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters), and “Get it While You Can” (originally by Howard Tate). Prior to Joplin’s death, Ragovoy wrote a song especially for her, “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.” Unfortunately, the song was never recorded or performed until shortly before Ragovoy’s death in 2011 when he saw it first performed in “One Night with Janis Joplin.”

“A Night with Janis Joplin” is all about the music, although the opening night audience didn’t quite know what to make of it all. It took quite a bit of coaxing from the cast members before the theater attendees got up on their feet and clapped and swayed to the music. Or perhaps it was because the performance started out a little slowly, only cresting with “Piece of My Heart”, toward the end of the first act. The second act finished strongly with some of Janis’s best material, ending, in the form of an encore, with her own piece of social commentary, “Mercedes Benz.”

Die-hard Janis fans who want to know more about her life and career may appreciate the intimate biographical documentary film “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” (2015) http://filmrise.com/janis/ written and directed by Amy Berg. My review of the film contains a short biography and discography. http://culturevulture.net/film/janis-girl-blue/

Emily S. Mendel
emilymendel@gmail.com
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.