Total Rating: 
June 14, 2017
July 9, 2017
San Francisco
American Conservatory Theater
Theater Type: 
American Conservatory Theater - Geary Theater
Theater Address: 
415 Geary Street 
Running Time: 
3 hrs
Musical Biography
Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson
Patricia Wilcox

What could be more appropriate to help kick off San Francisco’s Summer of Love than a musical devoted to the life and performances of Janis Joplin?  At A.C.T., the house gets as full and animated as at Woodstock and other concerts back in the day.  If you love Joplin’s brand of music, you can have a treat.  But that’s not all.

In the story of Janis Joplin, many influences appear, even if a sort of overture involves Joplinaires and the Band.  Next, though, comes Janis with Etta James, with vocals like “Tell Mama” that merited her a lot of staying power and influence on her contemporary and later singers.

The Chantels, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone all appear with Janis or send her into a direction that includes them.  As a special fan of Odetta’s folk and blues, I feel Sylvia Maccalla captures her essence even with an atypical song.  My daughter Ondine, who accompanied me to A Night with Janis Joplin, most liked Ashley Tamar Davis’s version of Nina Simone, especially rendering “Little Girl Blue” with Janis. Ondine was newly intrigued, though, by Tawney Dolley’s Etta James, whose records have been a favorite of mine.

Kacee Clanton is never less enthusiastic or able to lead Todd Olson’s band than the Janis Joplin she presents with verve and a remarkably similar voice and style.  The range of her delivery goes from the Gershwins’ “Summertime” through “Cry Baby” to “Kozmic Blues.”  If any one genre stands out during the whole concert, blues is it.  

There are plenty of screaming numbers, though: Joplin’s “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven” and “Ball and Chain” have her hitting the rafters.  Sometimes she seems to outrock the band!  It’s a “Night” with a Janis Joplin who rarely telegraphs her mortality. Most songs could be love letters, even with love that isn’t perfect.

The stage is full of color, with psychedelic projections in abundance. The band is part of the display which always centers on Joplin. Even when the singers who influenced her appear, they’re usually to one side of the stage.  In a convoluted way, Joplin’s simpler costumes than the other singers’ clothing connects yet sets her off from them.  Altogether there’s good reason that the wig designer is mentioned prominently in the program.

Because Randy Johnson created, wrote the script for, and directed A Night with Janis Joplin, all the performance elements blend like the projected shapes and colors in the background.  The show suits San Francisco and its 50-year celebration well.

Kacee Clanton (Janice Joplin), Sharon Catherine Brown, Ashley Tamar Davis, Tawny Dolley, Sylvia Maccalla; Kelly McIntyre (alternate for Janis Joplin); Band: Todd Olson, Michael Lent, Mike Smith, Aiden Moore, David Rokeach, Alex Murzyn, John Trombetta, Derek James, Kevin Porter
rchestrations: Len Rhodes; Set: Rob Bissinger; Costumes: Amy Clark; Lights: Mike Baldassari & Gertjan Houben; Sound: Ben Selke; Projections: Darrel Maloney; Wigs: Leah Loukas
This was a show seen by selected members of the American Theater Critics Association’s annual conference, held in San Francisco.  I attended on opening night, thanks to the A.C.T. officials.
Marie J. Kilker
Date Reviewed: 
June 2017