On the Janis Joplin Greatest Hits album, while performing her legendary tune “Ball and Chain,” in the middle of the song, Joplin goes into an earthy monologue about love and living every day as if it’s your last. It’s a bit of an odd transition, but it makes sense based on Joplin’s history. Her confidant, her lover, and the best friend she ever had changed nightly. Her audiences meant everything to her, and they loved her unabashedly in return.
It’s a premise that is explored marvelously in the powerfully visceral production of “One Night With Janis Joplin” at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, wonderfully directed by writer and creator Randy Johnson. The show features Janis in all her grunting, panting and sweating glory, devices which were used to absolutely belt and blast her way through her legendary stage shows.
While the show relies on the raw power of its exceptional lead actress Kacee Clanton, the show is beautifully nuanced with three wonderfully harmonious crooners who added plenty of texture, and silky smooth soloist Tiffany Mann who sings like a dream. Besides a phenomenal Aretha Franklin, Mann hammered home a lovely operatic version of “Summertime” from the Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
The show is a tale of two halves. In act one, a carpet sits downstage right, along with a bottle of Southern Comfort, a Joplin staple on a stage. While Joplin regaled the audience with stories of her youth, with some very compelling and others a bit banal, her influences appeared in the most vivid ways.
While influences and journeys rode heavy in act one, act two was all about Janis. Gone was the carpet and story time chair, yet the hooch went nowhere. More stories were shared from Joplin, an empathetic and skilled raconteur, yet the blues dug a bit deeper here.
The show’s success or failure lies directly at the feet of Clanton, and the woman flat-out whales. Clanton is a performer who, much like Joplin, feeds off the energy of the crowd. One of the most organic moment of the show was upon the conclusion of Clanton’s rendition of “Piece of My Heart” (my favorite Janis song), she grabbed the mic close and had a laugh that seemed to say, “You liked that, didn’t you?”
Clanton’s power was reminiscent of the Queen herself, with phenomenal renditions of the aforementioned “Summertime,” “Ball and Chain.” “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Cry Baby.” What is so interesting about watching Clanton in the role is we really feel that Joplin was able to give the audience one more night. Joplin’s untimely passing at 27, which puts her in a very exclusive, macabre club, is tinged with a heaping of what more it could have been. And in one of the more poignant moments of the show, when Joplin predicted she would be around for a while, there is certainly sadness in the fact that as joyous as the show was, we always felt the end was somewhat near.
While Clanton, who is heading to Broadway upon the San Jose run’s closing, belted her way on the stage for more than two hours, the band was equally up to the task, despite some confounding wigwear. The blistering guitar of Hunter St. Marie, the Tower of Power-like horns of Oscar Pangilinan, Mike Gillespie, and Justin Smith were sharp, and everything sat on a dazzler of a set designed by Cliff Simon.
While it certainly sucks to high heavens to lose a woman like Joplin so young, so articulate, so ahead of her time, the world was better off to have had her at all. And certainly, while I was not alive when Joplin was doing her thing, a show like this allows multiple generations to delve into what makes a person great. Joplin was an artist. Joplin had an amazing reading list. Joplin lived hard and performed harder.
There will never be another Janis Joplin. But for one night, there actually was.
San Jose Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with ZACH Theatre of Austin Texas, presents “One Night With Janis Joplin”
Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson
Starring Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin
The Word: Hot band, hot backup singers, and the heat of a fiery Clanton as the Queen of Rock. What could be better?
Stars: 3.5 out of 4
Sept. 5th – Oct. 6th
Tickets range from $28 – $79
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA 95113
For tickets, call (408) 367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com