A few years ago I saw “Love, Janis” at The Alley Theatre. It was one of the best things I had ever seen there, and I didn’t want it to end. The actress channeled Janis Joplin and her songs with aplomb, and it was one of the most successful runs in the history of The Alley.
Now, The Alley offers the stellar “A Night With Janis Joplin,” and although I don’t know how it is possible, it is even better. As in, about six standing ovations before the end of the show better. From the minute the show opens with a rock band, dancing backup singers, and lighting that makes you feel like you really are at a Janis Joplin concert, the atmosphere is electric, and that excitement level never wanes. You immediately plunge into Joplin’s deep pool of emotion and creativity, and you begin to understand how she was able to create music that was never imitative and wholly revolutionary, yet still connected to the musical predecessors that she so admired. It is easy to see how, for her, “Music is everything.”
With superlative musical performances that magically dovetail with the period costumes, the sets (which include a fantastic live band), and even moments of psychedelic images moving rhythmically on a screen, writer and director Randy Johnson orchestrates a perfect storm of music, monologue, and movement that engages the audience the entire time. If this show doesn’t take a piece of your heart, nothing will.
From the moment the music starts, Kacee Clanton as Joplin captivates the audience with her mesmerizing performance of one of the most influential icons of pop music. This is the role of a lifetime, and with her wild long hair, striking physical resemblance to Joplin, and her uncanny ability to embody not only Joplin’s unique and influential vocals, but also the emotional and physical intensity of her performances, it seems as though Clanton was destined to play this role. Clanton has it down, from Joplin’s explosive and emotional performances on stage, to her confessional musings that reveal not only elements of her life story, but her vulnerabilities and strong reactions to the art and music that informed her aesthetics. Clanton’s phrasing is not only pitch perfect when singing, but also when speaking, capturing Joplin’s conversational style in a way that reminded me of Joplin when she would appear on The Dick Cavett Show: witty (“The Blues are so subtle!” and, people “like their Blues singers miserable!”), casual, unimpressed with the stifling conventions of the world around her.
As her conversational monologues with the audience unfold, the aesthetic influences that began with her Port Arthur, Texas upbringing come alive. The entire show dramatizes the kaleidoscope of art that inspired Joplin to become a true original.
As superlative as Clanton’s version of Joplin is, “A Night With Janis Joplin” is not just a one-woman show—for Clanton is accompanied on stage with the performers who influenced her the most, including Bessie Smith (Cicily Daniels), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone—with Franklin and Simone fantastically and unforgettably portrayed by Amma Osei. Along with Jennifer Leigh Warren, these women play multiple roles, having to fill the tall order of alternating between being Joplin’s high energy back-up singers and the icons that had the music that propelled Joplin’s creativity and hard-won insights that permeated her lyrics. The performances of these singers also had the crown riveted—sometimes in silent awe, sometimes clapping along, with several times a song followed by a well-deserved standing ovation. Not only do these performances give an understanding of the music Joplin had in her head, but the individual and group performances of these women are absolutely phenomenal, and I cannot really choose a favorite, because all of them made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I could have listened to them all night. How do you channel Etta James or Nina Simone so convincingly? I don’t know—but I don’t care, as long as I can see these four perform again and again. The poignancy of their personal significance to Joplin is made even more intense by the profound talent of their stirring performances, no matter what the song or the genre, the choreography simultaneously bringing to life performance styles from past decades. At one point Aretha Franklin quips, “This is not The Lawrence Welk Show.“ No, no it’s not. It’s a heady cocktail, and you don’t want the party to end.
One of the major themes in the show is the presence of loneliness—not only for Joplin, but for everyone—and the way loneliness was a part of Joplin’s emotional spectrum that inspired her to write such powerful yet relatable songs that shook up the music world. When Joplin states that “The blues are a bad woman feeling good!” you know what she means. The writing is so utterly believable: Joplin calls her father “a secret intellectual,’ confesses that when she got a library card that “it was like the universe opened up,” and that when she looked at art books in a museum-less Port Arthur, it was “like I had come alive.”
The split level set, which allows for a dramatic, silver sequined entrance by Aretha Franklin, as well as moments of shadowy images of Joplin’s beloved group The Chantels, serves as a model of efficiency as it dramatizes how these musical icons psychologically backed Joplin up, continuously sustaining her musical productivity until her death.
From her jeans and bell-bottomed outfits to her whisky-swigging moments, no detail seems to be missing from “A Night With Janis Joplin.” Not a gesture, not a dance move, not a note. When the standing ovation for “Piece of My Heart” was in full throttle, I was right there with everyone on my feet, marveling at Clanton’s performance. Artistic Director Gregory Boyd is absolutely right when he says, “She was unique, she was hugely influential, but mostly she was that rarest of things—a performer whose honesty and feeling were undeniable, and who left something of herself in everyone who heard her.” And for an artist who is so strongly remembered for her untimely death from an accidental overdose, this vibrant show reminds us that when Joplin was alive, she was really alive, a card-carrying Romantic who privileged emotion and feeling over everything else, with music being the most important manifestation of those things. When she reveals that “I just want to feel everything I can,” you are so caught up in her charisma, you want to join that cult of emotion. Joplin admired The Blues and the women who sang them because for her, The Blues “tell it like it is”—providing an authenticity she deeply respected, embodying a “mood” that was “based in the have-not.” Whether she knew it or not, Joplin was a musical feminist, cheering for “the everyday woman.” There is still no one quite like her. “None of us are who we started out as,” Janis tells her audience, and we believe her. She can even wax philosophical, claiming that “song writers…are the real intellectuals” because they “create questions with no answers.” Indeed.
Many of the songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” were so entrancing you pretty much thought you were watching Janis Joplin in all of her raspy and raw-throated glory, the suspension of disbelief is so excellently delivered. When you leave this show, the performances teach you something about the nature of great performing in a way that mirrors Joplin’s own view: that “all that really matters are feelings,” and that the worst thing you can do in music, and in life, is to “play games.” Authenticity and truth are better. Joplin “used to want to be Zelda” in an admiration of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s “hell-bent way of living.” She did that, but on her own terms, rejecting traditional paths, and realizing that the most important relationship in her life was with her audience. She tells us, “You’re the One!” and it is magic.
If you weren’t lucky enough to have seen Joplin perform when she was alive, this is the closest you are ever going to get.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” runs at The Alley Theatre August 19-September 18 in the Hubbard Theatre.
Note: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Houstonia Magazine‘s “On the Town” Arts and Culture channel.