“A Night With Janis Joplin,” currently playing at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, gets its subject half right. The right part being the music.
Two actresses, Kelly McIntyre and Kacee Clanton, are alternating in the title role. I saw McIntyre, and she evokes Joplin’s throat-shredding intensity — her rare ability to project a sense of frenzy without losing control — to an impressive degree.
The show is basically structured like a concert, late in Joplin’s life, featuring an eight-piece band plus four backing vocalists. Sometimes, the backing vocalists sing as Joplin’s influences (Etta James, The Chantels, Odetta, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith). In between songs, Joplin talks, at length, to the audience.
Unfortunately, Randy Johnson — who created, wrote and directed the play, and first brought it to Broadway in 2013 — fails to make Joplin, the character, anywhere near as interesting as Joplin, the singer. Her monologues offer only the scantiest autobiographical details. And most of them are calm and rational in tone.
“No guy has ever made me feel as good as an audience,” Joplin reflects, at one point
“All we really have, all that really matters, is feelings,” she says, a little bit later. “That’s what songs are, man. They’re feelings.”
A few moments like this would have been fine. But Joplin returns to this philosophical mode so often that these segments start to undercut the ferocity of her music —and seem strange, given that this eminently sensible character, we know, is destined to die soon, at the age of 27, of a heroin overdose.
On a purely musical (and nostalgic) level, though, “A Night With Janis Joplin” delivers the goods. All of Joplin’s best known songs are included (“Piece of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Down on Me,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Ball and Chain”). A nice bonus is “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven,” which was written for Joplin (by Jerry Ragovoy) shortly before she died. Joplin never got to record it in real life, and it was performed in public for the first time in this play’s Broadway run.
In the numbers during which the backing vocalists step into the main spotlight, Sharon Catherine Brown makes the biggest impression, working her way up to a roar as a character identified only as Blues Singer.
There is still, perhaps, a great jukebox musical to be made about Joplin — one that would really evoke the cultural turbulence of her times, and create a three-dimensional portrait of her. “A Night With Janis Joplin” — which makes only minimal attempts to tell her story — isn’t it, though the music still provides enough goosebumps to make it worth seeing.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” will be at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Oct. 29; visit mccarter.org.