Something tells me that the hordes of baby boomers piling in to A Night with Janis Joplin aren’t there for the writing. Nor is it very likely that, on the drive home that night, they’re going to be discussing the merits of the piece as a theatrical work of art.
If A Night with Janis Joplin, which opened last week at the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre, were presented merely as a concert performance, it might be more successful than this meandering and unfocused celebration not only of Janis but of the women who inspired her.
The successful parts of the evening are entirely musical, which is no great surprise, but the show is overburdened by the haphazard hand of creator-writer-director Randy Johnson. (This production had a brief run on Broadway in 2013 and has been on tour for the last two years.)
Set at a concert two weeks before her death, Janis (played here by a brilliant Kelly McIntyre) addresses the audience between songs, recounting not only her childhood in but eventual escape from Port Arthur, Texas. The evening starts off promising enough, and it’s both fascinating and entertaining to hear about her early influences (the Chantels) and how music had always been a part of her life (she adored her mother’s stockpile of Broadway cast recordings—who knew?)
But the show isn’t only a Janis Joplin concert, and that’s where its identity crisis begins. As she shares with the audience the profound influence that the blues had on her style, the iconic singers that she references—Odetta, Bessie Smith, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, two unnamed blues singers—materialize on stage and sing a song. Janis interacting with her influences infuses the show with a beyond-the-graveness that would be more fulfilling if it weren’t purported to have taken place two weeks before her death.
About half of the first act—which is relatively tight and polished—focuses on these performers rather than Janis. Somehow, though, it works. They sell it. But when the same conceit is repeated ad nauseam in the overlong and messy second act, the effectiveness of the first act is greatly diminished.
Still, despite the clunkiness, the four women who double, triple, and quadruple up on these roles are extraordinary. Ashley Tamar Davis’ “Summertime,” Aurianna Angelique’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and Jennifer Leigh Warren’s “Today I Sing the Blues” offer some of the most musically rousing moments I’ve seen on any stage this year.
Speaking of rousing, Kelly McIntyre’s Janis is a sensation. It is a performance of uncommon ferocity and bewildering might—both vocally and otherwise. She manages to rise above the show’s feeble writing and often pointless ramblings in a totally euphoric way. And yes, she sounds a great deal like Janis—especially that perfect rasp—though I cannot help but worry about what toll it might be taking on her vocal chords.
So while the show should actually be called A Night with Janis Joplin and Friends and would be far more persuasive as an intermissionless celebration of music, there are moments throughout of near perfection.
And you can’t argue with four midshow standing ovations.
A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN. ON TOUR THROUGH 2.18. ANIGHTWITHJANISJOPLIN.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.