Janis Joplin has been dead for almost half a century, but her music has never left us. The Port Arthur-born vocal powerhouse put such seismic hurt and raw sexuality into her songs the tremors still resonate. Her signature hits and the take-no-prisoners delivery behind them — “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” “Me and Bobby McGee” — remain part of the common musical tongue when most public memory of her onetime contemporaries like the Country Joe & the Fish, the Mamas & the Papas or Buffalo Springfield has long since faded. In her native Texas, which once spurned her all the way to free-spirited San Francisco, Janis is a latter-day folk hero who no longer needs more than one name.
Now, on the heels of Amy L. Berg’s well-received 2015 documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, comes A Night With Janis Joplin, playing through September 18 at the Alley’s Hubbard Theater. Anyone looking to spend two hours immersed in Joplin’s music, plus a few songs by some key female influences on her, should get in line immediately. Those interested in deeper insight into how Joplin’s tumultuous life fed directly into the incredible songs she sang may feel a little let down, but probably not so much that they won’t be transported by the dynamic performances of the cast all the same.
Adapted by Randy Johnson of Always...Patsy Cline and the forthcoming Shout, Sister, Shout! (the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe), A Night With… premiered on Broadway in 2014 and earned a Tony nomination for Mary Bridget Davies in the role of Joplin. At the Alley it’s Kacee Clanton, who has done Janis several times before, certainly enough to know exactly what she’s doing. Clanton has the kind of pipes necessary to tackle songs by Etta James and Big Mama Thornton, some of which climax with such fervor she comes close to speaking in tongues, and the same kind of nervy confidence Joplin needed to survive in the hormonal funhouse that was ‘60s rock and roll. Most of all, she understands the vulnerability that was never far away from the buoyant personality Joplin presented to the world, but that also became the most lethal weapon in her arsenal whenever she stepped onstage.
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Clanton is joined by a number of other dynamic performers onstage. Led by Associate Musical Director Cody Garrett, the five-piece backing band tackles everything from the high-kicking Memphis R&B of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” to the woozy psych-rock of “Kozmic Blues” with vigor, often augmented by the three-man horn section found on so much great ‘60s rock and soul. Billed as the Joplinaires, the four women who share the stage with Clanton for much of the show are hardly mere backup singers — each one gets a solo turn as a performer whose music helped inspire Joplin: Tawny Dolly as glamorous Etta James (“Tell Mama”); Cicely Daniels as brassy Bessie Smith (“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”) and spiritual sage Odetta (“Down On Me”); Jennifer Leigh Warren as an anonymous blues singer, whose version of Aretha Franklin’s “Today I Sing the Blues” may be the evening's best single performance; and Amma Osei as a wise and regal Nina Simone (“Little Girl Blue”). When Osei shows up as Franklin herself, in a gown that is truly a sight to behold, to close out Act I in full holy-roller mode with “Spirit In the Dark,” all that’s missing are the audience members doing cartwheels like the James Brown scene in The Blues Brothers.
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The Joplinaires do more than allow Clanton to catch her breath or change costumes, too. Their solo turns place Joplin’s own music in an important context as she both upholds and breaks free from this venerable folk-blues tradition that she, as a self-proclaimed “middle-class white chick,” can never fully claim as her own…and so must create something new, as seen when “Down On Me” transforms from Odetta’s solemn hymn to Joplin’s frenetic cry of self-determination. Such as there is one, the plot of A Night With…revolves around Joplin talking between songs about her background, and explaining how and why she connected with her inspirations.
In so doing, Joplin gradually comes to understand and embrace her role as “a white chick singin’ the blues.” And to think early on, she thought the blues was just “a bad woman feeling good.” In fact, if A Night With… has an Achilles heel, it’s that any meaningful discussion of Joplin's motivations as an artist — the disapproving parents, bullying and mental abuse that hounded her adolescent years, romantic frustrations, and especially her heavy drug and alcohol use — can often feel glossed over or tossed off as asides, no doubt just to make room for as many songs as possible. Still, about halfway through Act I, Joplin lets us know without a doubt she’s in on this cruel kozmic joke after all: “People like their blues singers miserable…they like their blues singers to die.”
Ultimately, using Joplin’s songs to tell her story was the only reasonable choice Johnson could have made. The force of her personality was so strong, the hole she blew in rock and roll — so artists like Bonnie Raitt, Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey and countless others could eventually walk through — more or less happened as a fortunate byproduct. If she had stayed a folksinger at Threadgill’s, someone else would have eventually blazed that trail, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who could have done so in a bigger blaze of boozy glory than Janis Joplin. So will A Night With… convince audience members to dust off their (or their parents’) old Cheap Thrills or Pearl LPs when they get home? It certainly ought to.
For showtimes and ticket information for A Night With Janis Joplin, see alleytheatre.org.