Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Needless to say, any production of this show will rise or fall on the performer called upon to personify Janis Joplin. A Night with Janis Joplin is such a vocally demanding role that the star is actually played, at successive performances, by two different actresses. At the performance that I attended, the role was taken on by Francesca Ferrari.
Ferrari captures Joplin's vocal style and delivery admirably and, indeed, A Night with Janis Joplin features some truly exciting singing, not just by Ferrari's Janis Joplin, but also by her expert quartet of fellow performers. And, if this show is never quite as thrilling overall as Ivoryton Playhouse's presentation, last season, of Million Dollar Quartet, a show also featuring iconic rock stars, A Night with Janis Joplin should still provide a nostalgic kick to anyone familiar with Joplin's megahits.
Scenic designer Brian Prather has provided an absolutely ideal, two level set (perfectly lit by Ryan O'Gara) that becomes the springboard for all the formidable singing that is featured in this show. Music director Michael Morris also deserves a big shout-out for leading an entirely terrific group of musicians, who do full justice to the range of song hits performed during the roughly two and half hour running time of this production. And while the dialogue and stories that Ferrari delivers during the show are interesting, A Night with Janis Joplin truly comes to full life during the musical performances.
Before getting to Ferrari's star portrayal of Janis Joplin, the four other women onstage also deserve their share of praise in making this musical work. Aurianna Angelique is excellent taking on such parts as Bessie Smith and Odetta, and Jennifer Leigh Warren is entirely her equal playing various blues singers and the lead vocalist of the Chantels. Even more potent is Amma Osel's personification of Aretha Franklin, resulting in a powerhouse duet with Ferrari of the song, "Spirit in the Dark," which ends the first act on quite a high note. Not to be forgotten is Tawny Dolley, whose performance as Etta James is truly astounding.
These four singers lay the groundwork for the jewel at the center of this show, Francesca Ferrari as Janis Joplin. If this performer doesn't have every detail of the title rock star down absolutely perfectly, Ferrari certainly brings an awesome vocal talent to Joplin's hits and she truly takes off in the second half, with her performances of such songs "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven" and "Mercedes Benz" being absolutely stellar and bringing the audience to its feet. It is safe to say that, if you get to see Ferrari as Janis Joplin, she delivers the goods.
All this being noted, A Night with Janis Joplin," as a whole, doesn't quite provide the knockout punch of Ivoryton Playhouse's recent production of Million Dollar Quartet, the last rock show that shook the stage of this theatre. This may be a lack of consistent quality at the core of this musical's framework, but this flaw should, in the final analysis, provide no real determent. For the fans of this iconic rock star, those who can sing along to all of Joplin's biggest hits, A Night with Janis Joplin should certainly be the ticket, and provide a supremely enjoyable evening of song and story.
A Night with Janis Joplin continues performances at Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT through June 24, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 860-767-7318.