Picture 1960s rock and roll, and the iconic Janis Joplin, arguably one of the greatest female rock singers, immediately springs to mind. The San Jose Repertory Theatre (San Jose Rep) brings her spirit to life in its production of “One Night with Janis Joplin.”
This show, more of a theatrical concert than a musical, makes its Bay Area premiere with San Jose Rep before it opens on Broadway on Oct. 10. With its incredibly talented cast and fantastic design, it’s no surprise that this show is on the track to greatness. It features two hours and 20 minutes of fast-paced, energetic renditions of some of Joplin’s most famous songs, including “Summertime” “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Me & Bobby McGee” and “Ball and Chain.”
For an advance performance earlier this month, Cari Hutson, the alternate to Kacee Clanton, played Janis Joplin. She did not disappoint, recreating Joplin’s powerful vocals and bringing the audience to their feet at the Act I finale. Along with her performance, the lights and projections emulated the atmosphere of the psychedelic 1960s, transporting its eager audience back in time.
The show moves from song to song with short interludes of Joplin speaking about her life. These interludes are, surprisingly, the weakest part of the show, occasionally breaking up the momentum of Hutson’s incredible performances. They are short tidbits about Joplin’s childhood, her appreciation for other female singers and her family. However, they don’t touch on her struggles with drug use or her tragic early death from a heroin overdose (Joplin notoriously belongs to the 27 Club, a name given to the group of celebrities who met early deaths at age 27).
This choice creates a production that has momentum but less depth for those who may want a more complete picture of Joplin’s life. However, it worked for this show, leaving the audience clapping and dancing to the music, perhaps oblivious to the tragic consequences of Joplin’s antics and addiction. It leads us to understand why Joplin once said, “No man has made me feel as good an audience”. Ultimately the strength of the songs is what defines the show.
It is not only Hutson’s amazing vocals that wowed the audience but also the backup singers (Shinnerrie Jackson and Tricky Jones) and The Blues Singer (Tiffany Mann) – a character who embodies Joplin’s African American idols, including Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Mann does a tremendous job portraying these various women, and her commanding stage presence and remarkable voice produced enthusiastic cheers. The combination of all of Hutson’s acting, the four women’s powerful voices and the live onstage band puts Joplin’s career in music at the forefront of that night at the theater.
“One Night with Janis Joplin” is a must-see for any diehard fan of ‘60s music. It runs through Oct. 6 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, and tickets can be purchased at http://www.sjrep.com/.