A review of “A Night With Janis Joplin,” on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre through April 17. Kacee Clanton, as Janis, brings the house down with renditions of Joplin classics, but the show feels more faux concert than musical.
The way “A Night With Janis Joplin” portrays the death of the singer at age 27 is indicative of its whole approach. This is a show that wants you to have a good time, but there’s nothing fun about a heroin overdose.
It’s understandable that writer and director Randy Johnson would want to sidestep a predictably bleak “Behind the Music”-style arc, but there’s still something kind of garish about the way the show feints toward tragedy, then skips ahead to a jubilant finale of “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.”
More faux concert than musical, “A Night With Janis Joplin” appeared briefly on Broadway in late 2013 and was slated for a subsequent Off-Broadway run that was abruptly canceled just two days before it was scheduled to open. The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production aims to re-create the Broadway staging, using the original sets and costumes, and it’s a rousing crowd-pleaser packed with so much talent that it’s easy to overlook the show’s slick construction.
‘A Night with Janis Joplin’
by Randy Johnson. Through April 17, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $24-$141 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
Kacee Clanton stars as Janis and essentially brings the house down with renditions of more than a dozen Joplin classics, from “Piece of My Heart” to “Me and Bobby McGee” to “Ball and Chain,” the show’s closest thing to a genuine psychedelic freak-out. Clanton’s raspy, immensely powerful voice sounds remarkably like Joplin’s, but stops short of outright mimicry. Her vocals never feel clouded by affectation; there’s way too much conviction in her singing for that.
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It’s hard to say the same for the show, which often plays like a sanitized, cruise-ship version of a rock concert. In between songs, Janis takes slugs of whiskey straight from the bottle and sketches in some basic biographical information, recounting how she grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, learned to love the blues and show tunes from her mom, and ran away to San Francisco to start a music career.
The show does have at least one smart structural idea, paralleling Joplin’s songs with the blues and soul artists who influenced her, including Etta James (Aurianna Tuttle), Bessie Smith (Sylvia MacCalla), Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin (both played by Yvette Cason). Nova Payton also stars, as an unnamed blues singer, and her jaw-dropping rendition of “Today I Sing the Blues” could be the show’s finest moment.
When the music stops, “A Night With Janis Joplin” drags, as her personal reflections turn into repeated theories on the meaning of the blues, spaced-out treatises punctuated with a drawled “man” every three words. Clanton is plenty charismatic, but these interstitials begin to feel like you’re the sober one at the party, and you’ve been cornered by the highest person there.
The show dabbles in melancholy — Janis observes that people want their blues singers to die, and she makes a wistful promise that she’s going to be around for a long time — but it seems more interested in providing a nostalgia rush than careful introspection. With Clanton’s magnetically emotive performance at its center, “Joplin” keeps the hits coming.