Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
A Night with Janis Joplin
The musical's conceit is a concert featuring Janis Joplin (performed in rotation by Francesca Ferrari and Paige McNamara) and her band shortly before Joplin's untimely death in 1970, at age 27. Joplin intersperses her songs with monologues about her early suburban upbringing in Texas, her success with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and her transition into a solo career. She also rhapsodizes about singers she admires, from Bessie Smith (the talented Aurianna Angelique) to Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin (both strongly sung by Nattalyee Randall) to Etta James (an attention-grabbing Tawny Dolley), and as she does, these heroes appear, almost like ghosts watching over her, and they sing for themselves.
This show is the creation of Randy Johnson, who serves as director. He was granted access to Joplin's diaries by her family, and apparently everything that Joplin says in the show is a direct quote of something she said or wrote during her life. The presentation of the legendary singer feels a bit sanitized both in language and demeanor, with only subtle references to her drug and alcohol abuse. The stories of her suburban family and her essays in painting are disarmingly wholesome. In truth, though, the title of this production is a bit misleading. Audiences who enter the theatre thinking they are in for another jukebox musical of a cherished artist's catalog will have to adjust their expectations when it turns out that a good half of the show is dedicated to those rhythm and blues greats, in whom Joplin found inspiration.
At times the balance is a bit precarious; "Piece of My Heart" seems shoehorned into the first act, not giving it the proper attention that the audience may expect of such an iconic song, while the first act finale is dominated by Aretha Franklin, with Joplin joining almost as an afterthought. Ultimately, this is an excellent, strongly satisfying show; it just may not be the show you were expecting.
The scenic design by Brian Prather is a highly detailed rock venue, from flickering candles at the edge of the stage to psychedelic rock show posters plastering the walls. LeGrande Smith's costumes tap into Joplin's iconic looks, from her rose-tinted glasses to her bell-bottom jeans. Pieces like Bessie Smith's flowy frock and Nina Simone's head wrap make these other women equally familiar, though Aretha Franklin's gaudy outfit might have been a reject from James Brown's wardrobe. The standout of the design team is Ryan O'Gara, whose lighting design is a wonderland of moving color, sometimes psychedelic and sometimes funereal. Mr. O'Gara has made full use of the technology, sending his lights sweeping over both the performers and the audience, and while they strongly evoke a rock concert, they might be a bit too modern for a sixties vibe, and they are a bit overused at times.
At the performance I saw, Francesca Ferrari sang the main role, and she has the vocal chops to make anyone believe that Ms. Joplin is alive and well. Her speaking voice lacks a bit of the "lived-in" sound that characterizes one who lived as hard as Joplin, and her characterization matches the oddly wholesome tone of the script. But her singing makes up for it, particularly in the second act. The other women who share the stage in various roles (Aurianna Angelique, Tawny Dolley, Nattalyee Randall, and Jennifer Leigh Warren) are equally deserving of praise for their vocal abilities. The standout of the ensemble cast is Ms. Warren, whose Broadway credits including originating the role of Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors and a prominent featured role in the original Broadway production of the musical Big River. As an everywoman blues singer, she knocks it out of the park with her rendition of "Today I Sing the Blues."
A Night with Janis Joplin celebrates the music that formed a generation and a particular woman at the heart of it all, but it also is a loving homage to many great African-American singers who laid the foundation for rock music. That makes the show particularly satisfying, in a time when we are increasingly appreciative of the contributions of women to our culture and our arts, and to the challenges they faced as they did. A tragic air hovers over this show because, unlike the exuberant headliner on stage, we know what's in store for her. But there is so much joy here, so much to celebrate in the meantime.
A Night with Janis Joplin, through May 20, 2018, at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium at the Fletcher Opera Theater, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.nctheatre.com or by phone at 919-831-6941, ext. 6944.
Created, Written, and Directed: Randy Johnson