Currently, McCarter Theatre is like Woodstock meets The Cotton Club thanks to A Night With Janis Joplin written and directed by Randy Johnson. This Tony-nominated Broadway musical has opened in Princeton to the delight of many baby boomers, but there’s something for all generations to appreciate.
First of all, towards the beginning of the musical, we hear a teaser of the powerful Gershwin classic Summertime from Porgy and Bess. It serves as an appetizer of one of the influences in Joplin’s music. As the bassist and drummer’s cymbals introduce the haunting guitar riff, Janis’ raspy voice sets the tone for the evening – unfiltered and passionate. McCarter’s production alternates Kacee Clanton and Kelly McIntyre as Janis Joplin. Clanton was on stage the night I saw this. Clanton’s execution of Joplin’s mannerisms seemed a little contrived at times, yet she manages to own the stage and has a great rapport with the band. She also has a strong voice and shares many vocal similarities to Joplin.
This musical is intertwined with storytelling and on-screen visuals. Janis is accompanied by a live eight-piece band that summons the sound of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin discusses her influences: Aretha Franklin (Amma Osei), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), Nina Simone (Amma Osei), Bessie Smith (Sylvia MacCalla), and The Chantels who join her on stage and are brought to life by some phenomenal vocalists.
There’s an extra blues singer (Sharon Catherine Brown) who consistently gains applause for holding long notes and backup singers called The Joplinaires (all additional singers) who add some special sauce to Piece of My Heart. Clanton powers through about a dozen songs, including Cry Baby, Me And Bobby McGee, and Mercedes Benz.
Kacee channels Janis to transport the audience back to the late 60s and her idols bring textures to the musical singing the blues, gospel, and Doo-Wop music. She leads us from her childhood to her singing career in conversation and song, which is accompanied by her artwork and graphics on a rear screen. Joplin also occasionally quenches her thirst in typical fashion with a bottle of “Southern Comfort” conveniently stashed away on stage.
Randy Johnson waters down Joplin’s dark side of drug and alcohol abuse and one-night stands, and emphasizes her raw talent, musical muses, and growing up in Texas. The audience response is amazing, with boomers on their feet clapping and dancing like teenagers turning this performance into a big party. Just when you think it can get any better, the “Queen of Soul” (Osei) helps to bring down the house.
Patricia Wilcox’s choreography is infectious and will have you tapping your foot at the very least. The Chantels and the Joplinaires synchronized movements are reminiscent of the era, and audiences will love it. The costumes are groovy, the lighting is psychedelic, the band is hip, and the vocalists are boss! Translation for GenX’s: This is totally awesome! Millenials: #amazing #music #concert
Parents should use their discretion regarding bringing children because Janis does use the “F-word” a few times.
A Night With Janis Joplin runs at McCarter on the Matthews Stage October 10 – 29. Tickets range from $25 -$97.50 and can be purchased online, by phone (609) 258-2787 or at the ticket office located at 91 University Place in Princeton. Run time is 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.