A Night with Janis Joplin
photo by Curtis Brown Photography
Paige McNamara as Janis Joplin
Through Sunday, May 20
Fletcher Opera Theater, Raleigh
It’s the matter-of-fact delivery that makes the line so devastating. “People like their blues singers miserable,” Janis Joplin says. “People like their blues singers to die.” Boom. All the light and air go out of the room as designer Ryan O’Gara silhouettes the vulnerable rock star in a single cold, white spotlight. There are other moments that qualify NC Theatre’s production of A Night with Janis Joplin
as something of a musical séance, at least when Francesca Ferrari is at the helm as the title character. (We didn't see Paige McNamara, who plays the role on alternating nights.) But none of them underline the ultimate price of fame better than this.
Credit playwright and director Randy Johnson for making what could have been a single-sided rave-up into a tribute not only to Joplin, but the women who most directly influenced her sound. A choir of African-American gospel, jazz, blues, and soul singers, including Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, and the Chantelles, take the spotlight in a series of convincing cameos. Tawney Dolley channels Etta James as she groans into “Tell Mama," punctuating her performance with a signature flourish of costume designer LeGrande Smith's sequined skirt. Jennifer Leigh Warren crouches down to testify and music director Alex Prezzano’s tight horn section digs in on “Today I Sing the Blues.”
Ferrari captures Joplin’s conviction and her crazy, reckless grin in the soul-baring monologues that stitch together the musical supplications of “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” and “Try.” With her estate directly involved, this musical glosses over the rawest parts of her story, and Eric Alexander Collins’s timid sound design never calls for the ear plugs available in the lobby. Still, Ferrari conveys the intensity and bedrock blues verities of one of the all-time great women of rock. Recommended.