Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Night With Janis Joplin

Kacee Clanton stars as Janis. Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

A Night With Janis Joplin at the 5th Avenue Theatre surpassed my expectations, and my expectations were awfully high.

Not only does Kacee Clanton stand out on every one of Janice’s great hits with backup from a band that is like Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Kozmik Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band all combined into one rocking ensemble, she sounds damn close to exactly like Janis and has her moves down pat. I expected as much after finding out that Clanton has made a career of playing Janis. But this show far surpasses my expectations because (first) there can be no comparison between a live performance with the full 5th-Ave-style production values and the records and video clips which were my only previous ways of experiencing Janis’s electric presence, and because (second) in addition to great Janis Joplin hits like “Down on Me” and “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” there are a dozen great songs by the pioneering women blues singers who influenced Janis—Etta James (Aurianna Tuttle), The Chantels, Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), Bessie Smith (MacCalla), Nina Simone (Yvette Cason), and an “every woman” played by Nova Payton and identified simply as Blues Singer.

Janis Joplin (Kacee Clanton, center) and Aretha Franklin (Yvette Cason, right) with Franklin's singers (l-r Sylvia MacCalla, Aurianna Tuttle and Nova Payton). Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka
First, a word about Clanton. She was an alternate Janis in the original Broadway production of this play and played the same role in the Pasadena Playhouse, ZACH Theatre, and San Jose Repertory Theatre, and performed as Janis in Love, Janis at the San Diego Repertory, Kansas City Repertory, and Downstairs Cabaret Theatre. Plus she has toured as a vocalist with Joe Cocker, Luis Miguel and Big Brother & the Holding Company. That resume alone should send every Joplin fan in the Northwest running to the 5th Ave.

A Night With Janis Joplin is more concert than play, with 25 songs including versions of “Summertime” performed first by Blues Singer and then by Janis, and versions of “Down on Me” by Odetta followed by Janis (hearing earlier blues versions of these great songs followed immediately by the familiar sound of Janis’s rocking blues versions is breathtaking). There is also the theatrical element of Janis telling her life story in short speeches (while sipping whiskey)  between songs, from her childhood in Port Arthur, Texas to her final songs recorded shortly before her tragic death at the age of 27.

It is a feel-good look at her life with no mention of drugs and very little mention of how lonely she was throughout much of her short life (she did talk about feeling fully alive and loved only when performing in front of an audience.

Act 1 ends with something that never happened outside of this play and never will: a duet between Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin (Cason) on “Spirit in the Dark” which had the audience on its feet and screaming. Another song that had the audience on its feet was Payton’s mesmerizing rendition of “Today I Sing the Blues.” In all my years as a theater critic I can’t recall any other show that brought the audience to its feet so often.

Warning: This show is loud, and the spectacular lighting effects are slightly overdone. But who cares?

A Night With Janis Joplin – through April 17. 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue Seattle, Washington,
Note: Understudy Kristin Piacentile plays Janis April 2, 3, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14 and 16.

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