Reviewed by Judy Richter
Kacee Clanton as Joplin, joined by four other women singers and an eight-man band, sings an array of Joplin's greatest hits. In addition, Tiffany Mann as the Blues Singer recreates Joplin's inspirations such as Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta and Aretha Franklin.
In between songs, Clanton's Joplin talks about growing up in Port Arthur, Texas. Her mother, a big fan of Broadway musicals, would buy one cast album per week and play it so much that Joplin and her two siblings knew every song by heart. She also gave the three kids singing lessons.
Eventually Joplin made her way to San Francisco, where she sang with Big Brother and the Holding Company and other bands. She quickly became an icon of rock 'n' roll with her raw, passionate interpretations of her own and others' songs. No one had ever sung quite the same way before, and no one has sung exactly that way since. However, Clanton does a great job in this demanding, high-energy role.
Likewise, Mann is terrific in songs like "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," which she sings by herself. She's also joined by Clanton in other songs like "Spirit in the Dark" and "Little Girl Blue."
They're backed vocally by the three Joplinaires: Cari Hutson (the alternate for Joplin), Shinnerrie Jackson and Tricky Jones. The instrumentalists sometimes chime in vocally.
Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, this show is opening simultaneously on Broadway with a different cast but the same director.
Rick Lombardo, San Jose Rep artistic director, announced on opening night that this local show was proving to be the biggest seller in the company's history, resulting in a week's extension.
While the show has an abundance of gems for Joplin fans, it's not content with highlighting the music. Instead it's greatly overproduced, especially the lighting and projections. Matthew Webb's lighting design often sends blindingly bright lights into the audience. Some of the almost nonstop projections by Colin Lowry are interesting, especially the psychedelic posters from the period and examples of Joplin's artwork, but other images amount to visual overkill.
Cliff Simon's workable set features stacks of the huge (though nonworking) amplifiers used in rock concerts. Bottles of Southern Comfort whiskey, which became a Joplin trademark, are placed around the stage, but the script makes scant mention of her excessive drinking. Nor does it touch on the drug usage that led to her untimely death in 1970 at the age of 27.
Steve Schoenbeck's sound design is expectedly loud. Susan Branch Towne has designed some eye-catching costumes for the women.
Because the show is so visually overdone, it's not as effective as the earlier "Love, Janis" that played at San Francisco's Marines Memorial Theatre in 2006. Still, many people in San Jose's opening night audience seemed to love the show, especially when it showcased hits like "Piece of My Heart," "Down on Me," "Me & Bobby McGee," "Ball and Chain" and "Mercedes Benz".
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