She was born on January 19, 1943 and died on October 4, 1970. Do the math – her life spanned a mere 28 years, yet she is a Rock and Roll and Blues icon whose albums have sold over 15 million copies. Her name is Janis Joplin, and she has come back to life at the Ivoryton Playhouse in an evening of sheer electricity.
Given the vocal requirements of the performance, the role of Joplin is shared on alternate nights by Francesca Ferrari and Paige McNamara. On opening night, it was McNamara who took the stage. McNamara brilliantly captures Joplin’s hyperkinetic stage presence, which was fueled by drugs and alcohol. Her legs can’t stop jerking; her arms shoot up as exclamation points; her body channels the rhythm and beat of the music. There are moments when you think she might just explode out of her skin, that what she is experiencing on stage is sheer synesthesia, a mesh and merger of sight and sound that enflames her mind.
Backed by eight highly talented musicians who make the rafters of the venue shake, rattle and roll, McNamara offers up bits of Joplin biography with numerous references to those artists who influenced her: Bessie Smith and Odetta (Aurianna Angelique), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Amma Osei) and the lead Chantel, also billed as the Blues Singer (Jennifer Leigh Warren). Thus, this walk down memory lane captures much of an entire era that embraced Soul, R & B and Rock. Often, as with the number “Summertime,” we are offered the traditional version (compliments, in this case, of Osei) and then Joplin’s more kinetic cover of the number.
A lot of the production has been imported – it’s a co-production – but Ivoryton has adapted what was brought in – essentially sets, blocking and lighting plot – brilliantly. This is especially true of the lighting, which was originally created by Ryan O’Gara. There are numerous cues and effects, and on opening night they seem to have come off without a hitch. Although the show was originally created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, Tyler Rhodes deserves a lot of credit for making the show “fit” the Ivoryton stage.
Joplin was a unique performer, and her brash, sometimes over-the-top presentation, with a voice that often sounded like gravel being dumped from a truck, is there for all to see and hear in McNamara’s performance, including the occasional slugs from bottles of Southern Comfort (one assumes they are props). Although the evening is essentially a juke-box musical, there is a build of sorts, for the second act encompasses the haunting “Stay With Me,” as well as the iconic “Me and Bobby Mcgee” and, finally, “Mercedes Benz,” with the audience chiming in and chanting.
This is somewhat unusual fare for the Playhouse, but the scheduling, based on the opening night audience, seems to have worked, for there was a cross-section of generations in the audience, all of whom responded with stand-up enthusiasm. Think of it this way: your grandfather, who has always been into music, sits you down and gives you a crash course on the music that filled his younger years, putting on LPs (that’s long-playing records, for those of you who are from the “download” generation) and playing cuts and then reminiscing. He plays “My Baby” and “Turtle Blues,” “Spirit in the Dark” and “Kozmic Blues,” and as he does you are transported back to a time when he was young and just a bit wild, and you see him in a different light, a golden (or neon) glow, if you will, that evokes a time and a place (or multiple places) when Janis Joplin was one of the voices that defined an era…and moved multitudes.
A Night With Janis Joplin” runs through June 24. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.