A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN Theater Review
As her hometown is devastated by Hurricane Harvey, A Night With Janis Joplin, featuring Port Arthur’s most famous “native” daughter, has blown into the Laguna Playhouse. This isn’t a bioplay, as Kelly McIntyre belts out the raspy-voiced Texan’s tunes, accompanied by a rocking eight piece band performing many of Joplin’s greatest hits. Instead of a plot on Brian Prather’s nightclub-like set McIntyre delivers a series of rambling ruminations on fame, fortune, life, etc., in between songs.
I saw Janis perform live twice and McIntyre does a creditable job incarnating the singer - her swagger, swigs, twang and tonality. Like Joplin, the lead performer is not a conventional beauty, although both certainly had/have their own appeal. Costume designer Amy Clark cloaks McIntyre and the other singers with the period panache of sixties’ psychedelic spectacle. Most importantly, McIntyre holds her own with her vocals, which range from angsty to poignancy.
I saw Janis perform live twice and McIntyre does a creditable job incarnating the singer - her swagger, swigs, twang and tonality.
What comes across most during McIntyre’s onstage musings as Joplin is that the title character was a lonesome cowgirl. However, this Tony Award-nominated production created, written and directed by Randy Johnson is completely lacking into any insight into why poor Janis felt so lonely - except when she was performing and the center of attention, with that electric connection between star and audience.
The 2012 play Room 105, The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin, which ran in West Hollywood, was far better at showing what made Joplin tick. Even though Sophie B. Hawkins looked absolutely nothing like Janis, perhaps because she, too, was a singer (Hawkins’ hits include As I Lay Me Down and Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover), she captured her character’s bluesy soul. And in terms of acting, psyche is more important than persona.
Janis: Little Girl Blue also disclosed the humiliations and hardships Janis suffered at Port Arthur, with her private letters read aloud and revealing new interviews with Joplin’s relatives, lovers, friends and fellow musicians conducted specifically for Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary. (Joplin was probably bisexual although you’d never know that from Night.)
In any case, the best thing about Night is how it pays homage to the Black women the white Texan emulated and goes into detail about how these African American females influenced Janis’ distinctive but derivative (in the best sense) sound. Caucasian crooners arguably misappropriated rock from Black pioneers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, profiteering off of a larger “mainstream” audience that Jim Crow America denied African Americans and their “race music,” Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Pat Boone didn’t give their Black forebears the credit due to them - but this show definitely does. In one showstopper Janis and Aretha Franklin perform a duet, as the Queen of Soul meets the Queen of rock and roll - and become soul sisters of sorts.
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In a series of great song and dance numbers throughout Night Tawny Dolley portrays Etta James, Carol Hatchett Odetta and Bessie Smith, and Amma Osei Aretha and Nina Simone. (In the playbill, Leah J. Loukas has one of the most unique stage credits I’ve ever seen: “wig designer.”) Interestingly, while an anti-immigration demo took place just a few short blocks away, the opening night crowd at the Laguna Playhouse got into that sixties spirit of love and peace, with the enormous contributions of Black female chanteuses being honored and celebrated by a predominately white aud. As Ellen Richard, the theater’s executive director, pithily put it when introducing the show, “Thanks for ignoring that racist rally down the street!”
But it was impossible to ignore McIntyre and her crew of singers and musicians as they performed, to paraphrase Elvis, Playhouse rock. What was especially rewarding for this longtime Janis fan were the expressions that lit up the faces of teenage young ladies - as well as their mothers (and dare I say grandmothers: Janis would have turned 74 this year had she survived!).
McIntyre’s worthy renditions of “Piece of My Heart” and the Gershwins’ “Summertime” were my personal favorites. Listening to them I experienced acid flashes, momentarily becoming that 15 year old watching Janis at New York’s Madison Square Garden drinking from a flask before dashing onstage and at Shea Stadium during an antiwar rally, when my chum Elliott started a chant that swept the ballpark like the wave to “turn off the lights!” - which they did, even as Janis turned us on.
Joplin may have endured a misery that made her understand and sing the blues, but she also had a playful, mirthful side that McIntyre and the production also conveys, with songs such as that spoof of American materialism, “Mercedes Benz.” Oh lawd, won’t you buy me a ticket to see A Night With Janis Joplin? Even if priced at $60-$105, the tix aren’t exactly cheap thrills. But for Joplin and/or classic rock fans, it’s worth the price of admission, so get it while you can!
A Night With Janis Joplin is playing Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. on and Sundays at 1:00 p.m., through Sept. 10, at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. For more info: (949) 497-2787; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist(see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute).