News Column

Janis Joplin reborn at San Jose Rep

August 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 26--"On stage I make love to twenty five thousand people; and then I go home alone."

Janis Joplin seduced a generation with her whiskey-soaked voice, daring sexuality and emotionally shattering delivery. Now a new Broadway-bound musical "One Night With Janis Joplin" is hoping to rekindle our love affair with the iconic '60s rocker. Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, "Joplin" pays tribute to the singer's legacy as well as her unforgettable Southern Comfort-steeped sound.

"It's a vocal ballbuster, but it's a blast," says star Kacee Clanton. "You've got to sing hard and give it a lot of scratch. Your cords are working hard the whole time, because you've got to go from the gravel to the airy, high whistle.

"It grinds hard on your voice, but it's such an intense experience -- it's a crazy, emotional rollercoaster."

The high-voltage musical, which has the blessing of the Joplin family, makes its regional premiere at San Jose Rep Sept. 5-29 before strutting onto the Great White Way. If it's a gamble to shoehorn Joplin's boozy, bluesy tunes into a Broadway musical, it's in keeping with the spirit of risk that infused her life and work.

"If I fail, I'll fail in front of the whole world," Joplin once said. "If I miss, I'll never have a second chance on nothing. But I gotta risk it. I never hold back, man. I'm always on the outer edge of probability."

Dubbed the queen of rock, Joplin shot to fame as part of the San Francisco's psychedelic counterculture in the '60s. The fearlessly flamboyant chanteuse, who clawed her way to the limelight in an industry run by men, famously died young. She succumbed to a heroin overdose in 1970 at the age of 27, but she created a distinctive songbook that never loses its heart-stopping potency. This raucous theatrical memorial gets the audience all riled up with full-tilt renditions of songs such as "Piece of My Heart," "Ball and Chain," "Cry Baby," "Down on Me," "Tell Mama," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "Me and Bobby McGee."

Listening to those '60s anthems again lets Laura Joplin relive some of her memories of her wild child sister. She sees the musical as a way to pay tribute to her sister's rich and varied musical canon.

"Grief is something you have to get through before you can enjoy the person again, enjoy their memory," she says during a phone interview. "Now I feel a responsibility to be a caretaker of her legacy and to share what we know about her with the rest of the world."

The challenge of the musical is how to echo a singer so unmistakably unique without sacrificing a sense of earthiness and authenticity, qualities at the core of Joplin's mystique.

"The right Janis is everything," says Johnson, during a phone interview from New York where he is readying the Broadway production (which features a different cast). "You need a unique chemistry to pull off this role.

"This is not a Madame Tussaud's version of Janis. We want to capture the essence and the spirit and the heart of Janis. Kacee does that, and she will blow you away."

Still, there was never anybody quite like Joplin and there probably never will be. She had incomparable pipes, of course, but she also had soul, as well as an affinity for excess. She was always raw and real onstage as she careened from ecstasy to despair and took everyone in the crowd with her.

"Janis was one of a kind," notes the director ruefully. "There's not a lot of originality in pop music today, but Janis embodied that. Her message was 'Don't compromise yourself. You're all ya got.'"

Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943, Joplin was never one to conform to small-town ways. She heard the siren song of the blues as channeled by Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton, and it lead to her life as a hot blues mama.

"Janis' family told me to tell the truth," says Johnson, who pored over the singer's diary and her sketchbook to better understand her psychology, "That's what Janis did. She spoke the truth. We want to honor that."

Johnson notes that many devoted fans have followed the show on the road across the country, eager to revisit the sounds of that era.

While the director says "her music is timeless, it never gets dated," there is no denying the lure of nostalgia. "Some people come to the show because they want to relive the best years of their lives."

Clanton notes that many in the audience know every word from Joplin's live recordings from the songs to the banter.

"It's amazing when people start screaming before you even start singing," she says with a chuckle. "They hear that first guitar chord and they go crazy."

In a day dominated by lip-syncing and auto-tuning, Joplin's unvarnished vocals, the pain that rang out in her husky rasp, seem almost revolutionary. She gave all she had in every lyric. She gave until she gave out. And her untimely death is doubtless part of her enduring allure.

"People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers miserable," she once noted. "They like their blues singers to die afterward."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at www.twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

'ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN'

Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson

When: Sept. 5-29

Where: San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio

Tickets: $28-$79, 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com

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(c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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