Sept. 14--One Night With Janis Joplin: Musical. Written and directed by Randy Johnson. Through Oct. 6. $28-$79. San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio. Two hours, 30 minutes. (408) 367-7255. www.sjrep.com.
Tears rolled down my cheeks when Kacee Clanton poured her heart into "Summertime" as the title character in "One Night With Janis Joplin" at San Jose Repertory Theatre. Her phrasings were perfect -- the soulful wail; the urgent, staccato "no-no-no-no-no"; the notes torn from a raw, visceral core -- all within an artful reproduction of Joplin's unique delivery.
That's not the only time Clanton evokes the aural equivalent of an acid flashback in the Broadway-bound show that opened San Jose Rep's season Wednesday. Her full-throated plunges into "Tell Mama," "Piece of My Heart," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "Ball and Chain" are knockouts. But as loving a tribute as "One Night" is, it isn't particularly well crafted in several other aspects.
That doesn't bode well for Broadway, where author-director Randy Johnson is now in rehearsals (previews begin Friday). But that's a different production, featuring a mostly different cast and design team.
Johnson, who seems to specialize in musical-tribute shows ("Always ... Patsy Cline," "Elvis in Concert"), has staged "One Night" around the country ever since it opened at Oregon's Portland Center Stage in 2011. His New York "Night" stars Mary Bridget Davies, who played Janis in his Arena Stage version last year. Clanton, who will take over for Davies twice a week beginning in mid-October, comes with this version directly from co-producer Zach Theatre in Austin.
Both women are veteran Joplins, having played her in "Love, Janis" more than once, though not during its run at Marines Memorial Theatre in 2006 (Clanton has also toured as Janis With Big Brother and the Holding Company). That show, adapted from Janis' sister Laura Joplin's memoir, is more of a concert-biography. The biggest hole in "One Night" is how little it tells us of Joplin's life.
Johnson includes some good snippets about Joplin's childhood musical influences, starting with her mother. After that, we're left to infer her life and loves from casual references. The recurring drug and alcohol problems that killed her at 27 never come up, except in the form of the bottles of Southern Comfort she keeps stashed around the stage.
The San Francisco years -- the crux of her all-too-brief career -- are summed up in mentions of Chet Helms and Big Brother. Except for Janis' period costumes, the visual package suffers from the same amnesia. Projection and lighting designers Colin Lowry and Matthew Webb need a crash course in the era-defining light shows of Bill Ham.
Johnson's focus is on the music, and there he's more successful. An upbeat backup trio (Shinnerrie Jackson, Tricky Jones and Clanton's alternate Cari Hutson) provides strong support. The versatile Tiffany Mann is a pleasure as the greats whose work inspired Joplin's, from Etta James to the regal phrasings of Nina Simone -- though her voice isn't full bodied enough to more than suggest Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin or Odetta.
Missing, though, is the crucial question of how the San Francisco sound influenced Joplin's, except as it comes through in Allen Robertson and keyboardist David M schler's music direction and psychedelic guitarist Hunter St. Marie's dynamic octet. And in Clanton's full-throated renditions of everything from "Turtle Blues" to "Mercedes Benz."
Clanton may pull back just short of Joplin's vocal-cord-lacerating extremes, but her "Summertime" alone -- beautifully set up by Mann's soaring, classic take -- is enough to recall the visceral excitement Joplin generated live, never adequately captured on record or film. You know she's got it if she makes you feel this good.
Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic. E-mail: email@example.com
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