In the event it matters to you, (and it shouldn’t) there are two singers appearing as the legendary “queen of rock ’n’ roll” at alternate performances of “A Night with Janis Joplin” at the McCarter Theater. Although it might have been interesting to see and compare them both, I can only report that the performance that Kelly McIntyre gave at the Saturday matinee on September 14 was pretty sensational.
It is safe to assume that her alternate, Kacee Clanton, who played Janis on opening night and who was an alternate in the 2013 Broadway production, is also great. So other reviews might well be reviewing her. Having an alternate is certainly understandable considering the demanding, hell-fired vocals that define Joplin’s style. Part of the excitement for me was seeing how McIntyre and her company were able to whip up a matinee crowd that filled only about half of the theater.
The flashing, crisscrossing beams of light (by lighting designer Mike Baldassari) that streak around the theater at the beginning are meant to dazzle. It’s all in anticipation of Janis Joplin, whose life was tragically ended at the age of 27 by an overdose of drugs. It doesn’t take long for McIntyre to transcend the obligatory razzle-dazzle. It was gratifying to hear the increase of applause, shouts, and whistles that greeted the singer and the entire company throughout this searing biographical concert, earnestly written and smartly directed by Randy Johnson.
McIntyre has some extraordinary support from four super singers — Sharon Catherine Brown, Tawny Dolley, Sylvia MacCalla, and AmmaOsei. Billed as the Joplinaires they not only do back up but also get their own individual spotlight to evoke such great ladies of the blues as Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Odetta, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin, and even the rhythm and blues group the Chantels.
A sensational band of eight did more than serve as back-up as their splendid playing enveloped the theater. My more knowledgeable companion noted that this band was far better than the one that Janis had. I wish the sound designer would finesse the amplification so that lyrics to songs could be heard better than they are.
The Joplinaires are beautifully gowned by costume designer Amy Clark. In contrast, McIntyre keeps it cool and comfortable throughout in various versions of embroidered jeans. Constantly sweeping aside her long brunette hair may be an affectation, but it soon becomes part of the singer’s statement as does her frenetic body language. Early on, a “blues woman” rapturously sings the operatic aria “Summertime” only to be effectively followed with Joplin’s own famously deconstructed version.
Odetta comes to life with “Down On Me” as does Bessie Smith with “Nobody Knows When You Are Down and Out.” The Joplinaires have the Chantels down pat with “Maybe.” There are some cleverly arranged duets between Joplin and Etta James and Nina Simone among other combinations of the singers that comprise a healthy portion of the show.
It is Joplin’s repertoire of more than 20 songs — with anthems such as “Cry Baby,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” — that grasp the ecstasy and the agony that is always discernible in McIntyre’s raspy but always resonant voice. At the center of this production, presumably set during a road gig for Joplin and her band, is the predominantly up-beat narrative that is threaded between her songs.
Joplin also finds the right spots for some swift swigs straight from the bottle. This back story also brings those who know and those who don’t know back to Joplin’s roots, as family photographs, paintings, and drawings are projected. The narrative, however, leaves out any indications of her addiction or any of the demons that took possession of her personality.
Many fans will undoubtedly recall “Love, Janis,” a fine but more modest homage to Joplin that played Off Broadway in 2001. In that production three singers alternated the title role. This homage has been playing in regional houses since its Broadway premiere in 2013. McIntyre has rejoined the show after her stint at Janis in the first national tour in 2016. She perfectly embeds into the songs the impassioned intensity and the pain of self-discovery that defined the unique and inimitable Joplin.
This show will undoubtedly bring back memories of the full flowering of rock n’ roll during the psychedelic 1960s and one of its most iconic definers. It will also be appreciated by those with an interest in the history of jazz and its complicity in the evolution of rock. Ultimately “A Night With Janis Joplin” brings the ill-fated Joplin’s musical legacy and her adoration of jazz into sharp focus. She was a woman in awe of the jazz-blues genre that was to be her inspiration, as she tells us, “After all, the blues is just a good woman feelin’ bad.”
A Night with Janis Joplin, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through October 29, Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. $25 to $93.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.