Thursday, June 7, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 76, A Review: "A Night With Janis Joplin" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

The lead character in "A Night With Janis Joplin," the affecting, high-powered musical about the life and times of the late, manic, outspoken entertainer, now being showcased at Ivoryton Playhouse, is none other than Janis herself.
Crazed, driven and sweet-natured, this cult music icon, played by two different actresses, bares her soul for nearly two-hours, talking about her life, her loves, her future and her music in typical Joplin fashion.
And when she sings, "Piece of My Heart," "Me and Bobby McGee," among others,  that wailing, feisty flower child image and sound she was famous for, springs miraculously to life with the memory of what "Rolling Stone" described "as a true original."

As a celebration of the singer's life, the howls, the cries, the tears, the angst and the signature melodrama is very, very real. As a concert, it's the 1960s all over again, rife with blues, bruises, inspiration, booze, drugs, breakdowns, bell bottoms, long hair and glitter.

You cry.
You clap.
You laugh.
You shout.
You succumb.
Then again, that's the point.

On the production side, "A Night With Janis Joplin" owes its dazzling, show-stopping brilliance to Randy Johnson (creator, author and director), Grady McLeod Bowman (choreographer/associate director) and Tyler Rhodes (co-director at Ivoryton Playhouse). Under the trio's tutelage, the two-act musical serves up a slice of life called "Janis," sprinkled with plentiful dashes of spice, nostalgia, darkness and sentiment.

As the musical seamlessly navigates a history of all things Joplin, the trio delivers a deft, determined portrait of her ache for acceptance and liberation, her musical roots and desires, her demand to be taken seriously and her need to grasp, understand and project her vocal sound, personality and oft madness through her unique musical voice. It's a sweet argument of sorts and one that has been approved and tweaked by the estate of Janis Joplin during its initial conception and subsequent premiere back in 2012. Her death of a heroin overdose on Oct 4, 1970 at the age of 27 is not shown in this musical production. Instead, the singer plunges forward with the hope of longevity in life, in love and in the music world.

That said, "A Night With Janis Joplin" is mainly about her music. It doesn't dwell on her obvious drug and alcohol dependence, her breakdowns, outbursts or life that eventually spiraled madly out of control. There are hints and reminders, of course. But that's not the point of this musical odyssey. It never has been. Instead, the actual piece unfolds with a playful period nostalgia about it locked firmly in the decade from whence it came. Its look, its style, its costuming, its lighting, its scenic backdrop, its verbage, its movement, its choreography, its body language, its band and its performers are all very real. But "A Night With Janis Joplin" keeps everything and everyone behind the Ivoryton stage proscenium wall in a time and world that no longer exists. And to pull that off successfully without one glitch or hiccup is ovation worthy in itself.

Musically, "A Night With Janis Joplin" never misses a beat.
At Ivoryton, the show's terrific, solid, on-stage band, has been assembled by musical director Michael Morris, who doubles at keyboardist. Band members are Alex Prezzano (guitar 1), Dan Hartington (guitar 2), Chase Fleming (bass), Mike Mulligan (trombone), Michael Raposo (reeds), Michael Blancaflor (drums) and Seth Bailey/David Wharton (trumpets)

As the production unfolds, the band, dressed in authentic period hair and gear, reflect the style, look and persona of Joplin's world and its many influences. Everyone adapts splendidly to the magic of the live concert experience of yesteryear, which, in a show of this nature, often comes from the energized pulse of the people seated in the audience, many of whom are Joplin fans and unafraid to show it when the moment comes for them to indulge, cut loose or go absolutely crazy much to the delight of everyone on stage or seated amongst them in the theater.

With Morris as their ringleader, each band member blends in so smoothly with the set of songs that "A Night With Janis Joplin" sets forth, both naturally and memorably, the psychedelic era of the late 1960s and its mixture of the old and new influences of blues and rock that thrust Joplin into the limelight, rings loud and clear in typical musical tribute/concert fashion.

Everything, of course, is important to the musical story and its staying power.
The sumptuous, infectious song list for "A Night With Janis Joplin" is as follows: "My Baby," "Mercedes Benz," "Ball and Chain," "Little Girl Blue," "Summertime," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Kozmic Blues," "I Shall Be Released," "Maybe," "Piece of My Heart," "Spirit in the Dark," "Today I Sing the Blues," "Cry Baby," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "Stay With Me" "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," " "Turtle Blues," "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven," "Combination of the Two" and "Tell Mama."

It's all such fun, you can't enough.
Whether thundering madly through "Piece of My Heart" or soulfully reflecting the passion behind "Summertime" and "Little Girl Blue," this nine-piece band is astute and marvelously adept at every musical twist and turn. Well done, Mr. Morris.

In the lead role of Janis Joplin, Paige McNamara (she alternates the role with Francesca Ferrari at certain performances) gives a standout performance that sends sparks, shivers and meg-a-fueled adrenaline throughout the Ivoryton Playhouse. And, well it should. It's a part that the actress plays and owns magnificently from the moment she takes the stage. Her dizzying, full-throated versions of Joplin's music immediately harkens the late singer's signature's wild growls, maddening moans and crazy screeches. She also swigs down booze from a bottle in much the same way as Joplin. Her laughs, grins, crazy faces, tipping of the microphone stand, holding of the hand mike and storytelling bits between songs is in sync with that of the late singer. Her constant jumping around the stage during loud, pulsating instrumentals is wonderfully Joplinesque. As is her tales about her personal life, the blues, her music and the women who influenced her while she was growing up.

As dictated by Randy Johnson's playtext, McNamara shares the stage, when necessary, with four outstanding singers (in this case, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Amma Osei, Aurianna Angelique, Tawny Dolley), who either join Joplin in song or take the spotlight to sing the blues, in the guise of Aretha Franklin, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James, among others. All four have voices that rock the heavens and then some. And each actress, captures the aura, personality and star power of the marvelous female singer or singers they are each asked to portray. All four deserve a standing ovation in their own right. They are absolutely brilliant.

"A Night With Janis Joplin" is must-see entertainment chock full of pulse, dazzle, high octane, high spirit and enough sparks to blow the roof off Ivoryton Playhouse. It also reminds us of the musical legacy that is Janis Joplin.
It is one that will live forever along with the memory of a very talented, independent woman who lived life to the fullest until it was cut short by a drug addiction that silenced her in death forever at the age of 27.

"A Night With Janis Joplin" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through June 24.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.

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