Event: A Night With Janis Joplin
Date: April 5, 2016
Run: March 25-April 17, 2016
Location: Seattle, WA @ 5th Avenue Theatre
A Night with Janis Joplin was not in the original season lineup for 5th Avenue Theatre. It was a replacement show for Sleeping Beauty Wakes. Both shows have not been seen in Seattle before. For me it wasn’t that big an issue to see Janis instead. I have actually enjoyed a lot of these so called “jukebox musicals.” As a fan of popular music I love it when that collides into my love of theatre. Of course some shows are more successful than others.
I’ll admit it. Being born in the eighties I did not have great exposure to Janis Joplin’s music. Therefore going into this I was only aware of her singles and her untimely death. Luckily, being in the area early I was finally able to attend one of Albert Evans’ pre-show talks that the 5th Avenue theatre provides to audiences free of charge. More information about the days and times these events occur can be found on the 5th Avenue’s official site. Mr. Evans is an artistic associate to the 5th Avenue who often appears at their spotlight nights as well. Whenever he is around you can expect to learn something about music. In this particular session he covered song building, influences (to Janis and her impact on others), and a brief history of her life.
The show was staged as a one-night concert being held in Seattle. I wonder a bit how this works out for some areas of the show as she mentions doing gigs in specific places. The set was decked out with rugs, lamps, and a comfy armchair. Scaffolding held colorful and strobing lights (which caused some minor discomfort to me, but they really built on the atmosphere). The band was onstage for the production. Above and behind them was a catwalk that had video screens behind it. Not really suited for the time period of the concert, but it did provide some visuals to an otherwise static set.
Kacee Clanton stars as Janis Joplin. She was a member of the original Broadway cast as the alternate Janis (the alternate in this cast is Kristin Piacentile). If you see the amount of singing she has to do you understand why this is needed. It is vocally demanding. Thankfully we were seeing the show Tuesday night so Clanton had time to rest her voice the day before. I was greatly impressed by her vocal performance. It had the same rasp as Janis that gives a strong, raw, and emotional quality to the songs. She really embodied the late singer well. There was one point in the show where she held the microphone away from her face, but you could still hear her in the balcony. She commanded the stage and was charismatic with the audience.
Throughout the show Janis talks about her life and her influences. This is like any stage banter that you may have at any concert. However, in these situations you normally would have to wait to Google or stream the artist in question when you got home. Here they pop out right in front of you to give a live sampling of their repertoire – so this show is not solely showcasing Janis’ music.
The artists featured in the show are The Chantels, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Etta James. The talented cast that bring these women to life are equally amazing vocally and take on more than one character in addition to being one of Joplin’s backup singers.
- Yvette Cason brought the house down with her Aretha duet with Janis and soothed the soul with her Nina Simone. I was particularly tickled when her coat went up into the fly system.
- Sylvia MacCalla was Odetta and Bessie Smith. I did find the transition from talking about Bessie’s death awkward. I felt like there should be some gesture or bigger acknowledgement of this blues singer’s tragic death. Perhaps a bigger pause before jumping into the closing number for the first act would be enough?
- Aurianna Tuttle portrayed Etta James and a Chantel. I kind of wished that you could see the Chantels during their performance rather than looking at shadows via projections.
- Nova Payton (also dance captain for the show) played an unknown blues singer. However, the way she was signing she really entranced the crowd. Her version of “Summertime” was much better than the one I heard in Porgy & Bess when it came on tour here.
Although all of the voices were lovely, I felt it was a bit too messy to have it all going on at once during Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
There is not really to much to say about the story since it was about Janis’ life and it seemed a little disjointed. For being a “rock concert” I felt that there was a lot of downtime for stories and focusing on the melancholy of the blues. It was a bit difficult for me to get into the show for the first half because I kept looking at the show from a theatre perspective. However, during the second act I approached it more as one of the many concerts that I go to, which aided in my enjoyment. I also felt the audience was more receptive during the second act. I actually think this show might have more success as a shorter one-act performance. I did like how they added in an encore to make things more authentic…like the smell of patchouli when you walked to your seats. Well, at least I think the theatre put that scent in there to add to the atmosphere. It could have been a patron…
The 5th Avenue Theatre was planning to upgrade to a new sound system. Yet a show has never sounded better to me in this theatre than with this performance. Ben Selke was the sound designer making his debut at the 5th Avenue with Janis and I think he did a great job. Everything sounded really clear, which can be a careful balance when trying to work with a “louder” show as the vocals can often get lost.
Personally, as a bio-musical this was not one that I would find myself becoming addicted to nor did not affect me emotionally. However, the stand out performances by all the actors pouring their hearts and souls into the songs was just amazing and worth it alone to see. The show ends on a high, positive note that will delight the audiences.