Review: “A Night with Janis Joplin” Produced by The 5th Avenue Theatre. Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson. Musical Direction by Michael Moritz, Jr. Choreography by Patricia Wilcox. With Kacee Clanton, Yvette Cason, Sylvia MacCalla, Nova Patton, Aurianna Tuttle. Now through April 17, 2016 at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
There are five major reasons to go see “A Night With Janis Joplin”, the just opened new review about the music of legendary blues/rock star Janis Joplin now onstage at The 5th Avenue Theatre. They are:
They’re the five women onstage as Janis Joplin (Ms Clanton who shares the vocally demanding role with Kristin Piacentile) with the other four performers playing a variety of legendary singers who influenced Joplin, including Bessie Smith, Odetta, Etta James, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. All five of these are brilliant singer/performers and they all have moments in this production where they literally stop the show with thrillingly executed performances. Musically, “A Night with Janis Joplin” is a huge treat, with these extraordinary women singing some of the most powerful blues and rock music of the 20th Century.
I probably also need to add a fifth reason to see this production, the equally terrific onstage band led by conductor and keyboard player Michael Moritz, Jr and the other 7 musicians including the phenomenal Justin Davis and Greg Fulton on guitars and Andy Stoller on bass. Musically, this show is just one delicious treat…though it needs to be mentioned if you’re NOT a fan of the blues, or 60s era rock music, this probably isn’t the right show for you.
But, at last night’s opening night performance, the majority of the audience at the 5th Avenue WERE huge fans of this kind of music and after a typically hesitant and chilly Seattle start, they really got into the swing of things and frequently leaped to their feet to show appreciation of the performances. Nova Payton stopped the show more than once as the generically named “Blues Singer”….she originally wowed the audience performing part of the classic “Summertime” from the Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” but then stopped the show again with her “Today I Sing The Blues” and in Act II, she takes the lead on “I Shall Be Released” which turned the 5th Avenue momentarily into an ecstatic form of Rock’n’Roll Blues Church as the audience roared their approval.
I’d go to church again if it meant I could hear Nova Payton sing every Sunday…
Yvette Cason did the same with her Act One closing number as she channeled the passion of Miss Aretha Franklin in a duet with Janis Joplin on “Spirit in the Dark”. Cason/Franklin warns the audience prior to the number, “Ladies with Wigs….you betta pin. them. DOWN!” and then proceeded to flip all of our collective wigs with her soulful performance. Act Two ended on the highest of notes.
Ms Clanton’s Janis takes a back seat to the divas that inspired her in Act One but she finally gets to break loose in Act Two as she takes the central role, and then she proceeds to stop the show with her rendition of the blues classic (originally written and performed by the legendary queer blues artist, Big Mama Thornton) made famous by Joplin, “Ball ‘n’ Chain”. It was an electrifying moment in a show that had several. Ms Clanton’s performance musically, is a beautiful thing to behold.
But, now for the fly in the ointment.
Musically, this show is divine. Dramatically, it’s a huge flop. The narrative material in-between the numbers that form the structure of the show is amateurish, awkward and destructive to the pacing of the production. The basic format of “A Night With Janis Joplin” is a lame pastiche of “This Is Your Life!” but since it’s Joplin telling her story, it’s actually “This Is MY Life!” Except, creator/writer/director Randy Johnson has chosen to sanitize the Joplin story by omitting any direct references to Joplin’s battles with addiction. Oh, we do see Janis taking frequent swigs from an onstage prop bottle of bourbon and there’s vague allusions to her “problems” but this bland telling of the Joplin tale is so devoid of any meaning or real dramatic storytelling, that it ends up being just a dull mish-mash of platitudes and projected images of Joplin’s juvenile artwork.
Mr. Johnson isn’t a skilled writer and his skills at staging aren’t much better. This show is awkwardly paced and he places his actors oddly and without any cohesive thought. “A Night With Janis Joplin” might have had a longer life on Broadway and elsewhere if someone else took over the writing of the book as well as direction of the piece.
Musically, I can wholeheartedly recommend experiencing this show and the brilliant musical talents of all the people involved. As a concert, it works beautifully. As an actual piece of staged drama, it’s pretty bad.
Maybe close your eyes/ears during the dialogue parts?