Thursday, June 15, 2017

"A Night with Janis Joplin"

A Night with Janis Joplin
Randy Johnson (Creator & Writer)

Kacee Clanton
It’s 1969, homecoming, and the arena is packed.  Up to the microphone steps a curly haired woman full of fringes, beads, and bracelets.  She grins broadly, shouts out, “Hell-oooo, Knoxville,” and then grabs the now-standing audience in her outstretched hands and won’t let go for two-plus hours.  She uses her unique voice full of sand and gravel to cause feet to stomp, heads to bop, and bodies to pump to the hard-rock and soulful blues numbers to come non-stop -- punctuated only by her sharing bits and pieces of who the real Janis Joplin is.

And now it is 2017; the difference is she now says, “Hell-ooooo, San Francisco.”  And of course, the Queen of Rock and Roll before us is not the Janis who died almost fifty years ago but rather a reincarnation by Kacee Clanton in which appearance, movements, and voice are an eerie, almost spooky echo of the original one-of-a-kind Janis.  In an evening not to be soon forgotten even as pulse rates decrease to normal and the ear worms left by throbbing music eventually fade from audience ears, American Conservatory Theatre presents in rock concert fashion Randy Johnson’s (creator, writer, and director) A Night with Janis Joplin. 

The evening is nothing less than a joyous celebration of the legend’s music, with the star herself clearly having the best time of all.  So much is the stage her favorite place to be with those she loves the most -- her audience -- that Janis admits, “When I am up here on this stage, it is the only time I don’t feel lonely.” 

Sylvia MacCalla, Kacee Clanton & Ashley Támar Smith
Between rendering many of the now-iconic numbers of the likes of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedez Benz,” the Janis before us helps us understand the origin of her love of music and the connection of her music to the blues.  “It was really my mom that got me to sing and understand the blues,” she admits.  She tells us how her mom played incessantly the likes of West Side Story and Hello Dolly while she and her two siblings cleaned the house on Saturday mornings (Laura and Michael, both of whom were in the audience on opening night).  But is was when her mom played Porgy and Bess that Janis really began to understand, “The blues, man, they can drag you to where you’re going ... And no one can feel the blues like an every day woman.”

To prove that final point, our Janis shares the stage throughout the evening with one of the earliest African-American “girl groups,” the Chantels, as well as with the women artists who most influenced and shaped her choice of music, her unique vocal quality, and the emotional depth of her delivery – legends like Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and of course the incomparable Aretha.  The result -- as masterfully directed by Randy Johnson with hardly a pause for the psyched-up audience to catch its collective breath – is an informative, riveting, and uplifting evening of music and stories.

Every tensed, facial muscle; every fist or leg thrust high in the air; and every jerk, jump, and jolt of her entire body is a clear sign that Kacee Clanton has more than embodied the energy and essence of the real Janis Joplin.  But even more, it is when she rips it open with that signature-sounding voice -- at times so intense and rough, at other times so sweet and smooth -- that we know this actress has done her homework to become an interpretation of Janis Joplin that is stunning, almost shocking for anyone who saw the original on stage. 

Kacee Clanton
Kacee Clanton knows how to open up a song with a blast that blows any audience member leaning-forward to a sudden collision with the back of the seat.  She then digs time and again deep into her gut to find harsh, raw notes and sounds that reach into and shake unforgivingly each audience member’s very being, leaving each dripping in anticipation what this Janis will do next.   And just as surprising and startling, Kacee Clanton -- in full Janis style -- turns the corner to ease gracefully into a voice that is soft, mellow, and comforting.  And through it all, there is always a full sense of optimism, a joy of life – something that makes the music and the persona projected bittersweet to behold, knowing the abrupt and tragic ending that is to come in Janis’ too-short life.

Much of the magic of the evening comes from the juxtaposition of one of her blues inspirations singing a signature song with Janis then providing her reinterpretation.  Identified as only “Blues Woman,” Ashley Támar Davis in strolls slowly across an elevated walkway in Sunday finest (including hat and red fan) to sing in a haunting voice “Summertime,” letting notes linger long and longer.  Janis then takes over and rips a “Summertime” that is desperate, biting, and yet in the end, silvery and soothing. 

Kacee Clanton & Ashley Támar Davis
Ms. Davis returns with a voice pure as honey as Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue,” followed by Janis’s version of such raw emotion that one’s own memories return to some forgotten time when raindrops fell on an unhappiness, as occurs in the song.  As the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, Ms. Davis sings “Spirit in the Dark” with such exuberant and eruptive vibrations that the real Aretha seems to be in our presence.  When Janis joins her for a wild duet (one waving a white hanky and other swinging her beads), Janis warns, “Ladies, if your wearing a wig, you better pin it down ... It’s getting hot in here.”

Syvia MacCalla
As Odetta, Sylvia MacCalla sings “Down on Me” in a breathy, deep delivery with notes that take a pause before moving on.  Janis takes the same song and transforms it into her electric-beat cries that turn the blues number into something that sends shockwaves and shivers, so stripped down to the raw the notes become.  (Ms. MacCalla is also a hip-shifting, arms-waving Bessie Smith who just puts it all on the table and delivers unapologetically “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”)

Sharon Catherine Brown
A strutting Etta James (Tawny Dolley) kicks the stuffing out of “Tell Mama” as she flings a fist-full of her skirt with a vengeance only matched by her powerful, persuasive vocals.  Sharon Catherine Brown provides one of the night’s most stunning numbers (among many) when as “Blues Singer,” she gets into the roots of “Today I Sing the Blues” and yanks, pulls, and twists the notes so much as almost to hurt before finally releasing a sustained note held so long, so clear, so resounding that anyone listening is left breathless.

Together, the four women on stage with Janis appear in various groupings as both the Chantels and Janis’ back-up singers, the Joplinaires.  Not only is their harmonized singing superb, their synchronized movements are fully reminiscent of all the many great, African-American back-up groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s (women and men), having been wonderfully designed by Patricia Wilcox as choreographer.  When the four appear as Blues Singer, Nina, Bessie, and Etta, their “Kosmic Blues/I Shall Be Released” is a “wow” number that makes the night’s ticket price seem a bargain.

Michael Lent & Kacee Clanton
The evening’s musical success and excellence is due in no small part to the jaw-dropping musicianship of the eight-piece, on-stage band and the music direction of Todd Olson.  (Michael Lent’s electric guitar duets with Janis are especially memorable.)  Rob Bissinger’s scenic design is simple and effective and eye-poppingly enhanced by the psychedelic patterns and colors projected during much of the evening, designed by Darrel Maloney.  Amy Clark’s costumes are a show unto themselves, a memory walk through the electric band and Summer of Love era as well as through the history of some of last century’s greatest, African American women singers and the feathers, sparkles, turbans, and gowns they wore with pride and dignity. 

Particular kudos goes to the lighting designed by Mike Baldassari and Gertjan Houben.  Their choice and placement of spots – triangles shooting from the heavens to envelop singers and musician – is creative, beautiful, and exciting.

For anyone who was in her actual presence in the late 1960s/early ‘70s, for anyone who has since ever reveled in her music, and for that rare person who has never paid her any attention, A Night with Janis Joplin is a must-see in its now-extended stay at the American Conservatory Theatre.  It is hard to imagine anyone not leaving without heart pounding and smile shining.

Rating: 5 E

A Night with Janis Joplin continues in an extended run through July 9, 2017 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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