One Night With Janis Joplin Review

One Night With Janis Joplin

One Night With Janis Joplin

The concept behind Portland Center Stage's production of One Night With Janis Joplin is a good one: bring the Janis Joplin concert experience back on stage and give modern audiences a taste of what it was like to see her in concert. Unfortunately, the production, created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, is one big hot mess.  Johnson has a fairly impressive resume with a number of other stage music re-experiences including Elvis The Concert, Always Patsy Cline, and Conway Twitty – The Man The Music and The Legend. Johnson also has extensive experience directing actual concerts and tours. All this experience, however, doesn't result in a good show.

One Night With Janis Joplin suffers on a number of fronts.  The first and most serious issue with the show is an absolutely horrible script.  The play never can make up its mind if it's a singular concert experience or a journey through Janis Joplin's life. Many of the monologues that happen between or during songs are just one step up from ramblings. In the first act many of these monologues focus on "The Blues" and the other artists who influenced Joplin. Johnson seems obsessed with these influences and at times the show feels like it's more an essay on The Blues than a show about Joplin herself.  This obsession manifests itself in the creation of another character who wanders in and out of the show, 'The Blues Singer'.  This character comes on stage to represent many of the women who influenced Janis Joplin's music. The role is voiced wonderfully by Sabrina Elayne Carten, whose rendition of classic Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin songs are some of the absolute highlights of the show.Almost half the songs sung in the first act involve or are sung by The Blues Singer, and while I really enjoyed those songs, they often felt like a detour from the core show.  Another issue with The Blues Singer is that Sabrina Elayne Carten is a much better singer than Cat Stephani, who plays Janis Joplin, and the two simply don't sing well together.  In the first act the two duet at the end of the Bessie Smith song "Nobody Knows When You're Down and Out" and it's the absolute worst moment in the show.

Cat Stephani isn't horrible as Janis Joplin, she just isn't great.  For most of the show, Stephani is doing an impersonation of Joplin. With a lot of focus on her mannerisms and moves, Stephani seems very self aware while performing the role. But Stephani rarely crosses the line between impersonating Joplin to really embodying her. Vocally Stephani has solid skills, but the raspy rough notes which are a trademark of Joplin seem to really elude Stephani.  She's too clean, too polished and seems to be more comfortable with Joplin's ballad "A Woman Left Lonley" than songs like "Try (A Little Bit Harder)".  Stephani seems to lack the real passion and heart which defined Joplin, and she often mistakes being loud for being soulful.  It's kind of ironic how much time is spent with Joplin talking about the heart and soul of the blues, and Stephani's performance really lacks it.  Ironically it's in one of the songs that thrust Janis Joplin into popularity, the "Big Mama" Thorton song "Ball and Chain" which Joplin performed at the famed Monterey Pop Festival, that Stephani really nails it.  It's on this one song that we see the potential of both Stephani and the show itself. But as soon as the show feels like it's going to peak, the song is abruptly interrupted by a rambling monologue. It's a moment that exemplifies just how bad Randy Johnson's script is.

As poor and jumbled as Randy Johnson's script is, the back-up band, an eight piece blues band, is absolutely superb.  The band transitioned between songs like the high energy rock "Piece of My Heart" to the quiet and soulful "Today I Sing The Blues" without skipping a beat.  It's to the band that I give a lot of the credit for holding this mess together.

Ultimately, a show like this really depends on the person playing the iconic figure, and while Cat Stephani may physically resemble Janis Joplin at times, she really lacks the magnetism that made Joplin who she was.  Joplin was passionate, wild, unrestrained and had an extremely distinct and rough voice.  Stephani is too composed, too polished and too restrained. She seems resistant to dirtying up her high notes and giving the music the gravely texture which defined Janis Joplin's music. Even with an absolute ringer for Joplin, One Night With Janis Joplin still wouldn't be a fantastic evening of theater. Randy Johnson has lost sight of the story he's trying to tell with the piece and we come away with only a slightly greater sense of who Janis Joplin really was.  It's also a really sanitized version of who she was, as very little of the drug culture that Joplin was immersed in is ever referenced, and her tragic death at age 27 is only hinted at in the end with "I'm Gonna Rock My Way To Heaven".

One Night With Janis Joplin runs at Portland Center Stage May 24-June 26 (with the June 9, 12, 18, and 25 shows featuring the understudies in the main roles).

Geoff Kleinman

11 Comments

  1. Very fair review. I saw the preview Wednesday night and it felt extremely unpolished. There were glaring production problems, especially with the lighting. I agree that the band plays a great set but their costuming looks silly (Halloween quality wigs) and they act more like a hair band than a 1960's rock band.
    I can't agree more with the critique of the script. I really couldn't tell if the play was trying to be a simple musical retrospective or a biography on Joplin's life and influcences. It fails significantly on the latter. I didn't know much about Joplin coming in and unfortunately didn't know much more about her going out.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I also wasn't crazy about the costuming, Cat looked too neat and tidy through much of it. Also the rear projection screen seemed to be kind of a distraction. But I felt the issues with the script were more significant so i focused more on that.

  3. I concur. The band was tighter than tight and the blues singer, outta sight! Goosebumps, man! The script really was lacking. I agree there were a few moments when Cat nailed it but not consistently enough sell me. However, I rather liked the rear projections as well as the rest of the lighting and stage design. It was as entertaining as any tribute band I've seen but showed me little else about Janis Joplin. What I got from the show is that her and her ilk helped shape the more open-minded and liberated society we in this country became.

  4. Geoff,

    I'm curious as to which performance you went to. The show went through some changes between the previews and opening night (Friday, May 27) where the role of "The Blues Singer" was scaled back. The audience loved the show on opening night, giving Cat Stephani and the band an impromptu mid-show standing ovation after "Piece of My Heart" during the first act. A lot of the credit for the incredible musical performances should go to Musical Director and Arranger Len Rhodes, who created all of the arrangements from scratch, and who nursed all of the performers musically through the development of the show. A special moment was the encore piece, "Rockin' My Way to Heaven," which was written by Jerry Ragevoy (sp?) for the album that Joplin was working on when she died. Because the piece had never been performed, Arranger Rhodes didn't even have any recordings to work from, making the piece's irony that much more haunting.

  5. I was there on opening night. The show feels like a work in progress, I'm sure it'll go through more changes between now and wherever it plays next.

  6. did anyone ever see "love Janis"
    it was an AMZING production in the "village" in NYC
    i wish it would come back
    there were 2 people who played janis…. one was stellar the other was ok
    i forgot the stellar one's name but she could definately paly the rold it was a poignant intimate show
    from one who saw Janis live several times. as a reliable source :)

  7. I saw "One Night with Janis" on 6/7/11 to celebrate my 60th birthday. What a way to celebrate going back to the sixties! I had the opportunity to see Janis Joplin several times in 1967 San Francisco. I stood at her feet while she belted out "Ball and Chain." At 16, it was a "coming of age" experience to see such a wild woman belt out her songs and not give a f*** what people were thinking.

    So, given that, was Cat Stephani Janis Joplin? No, but she did a damn good job impersonating Janis. Part of Janis' personae was the wild mix of her free lifestyle—drugs, Southern Comfort, sex—that freed her (I imagine) to get on stage and blast her energy full force. Janis was not so much a performer as she was a force of rock n' roll (and life) to be experienced.

    I wouldn't expect Cat Stephani to take up heavy drinking and drug use to portray Janis Joplin authentically. I thoroughly enjoyed Cat's rendition of Janis, and yes, she nailed "Ball and Chain," I was sorry to hear the monologue at the end of the song. The director/produced needed to just let Cat finish belting it out because she had the audience in the palm of her hand.

    Geoff Kleinman's description of the production as "one big hot mess" is simply wrong. I'm not sure he experienced the sixties music scene firsthand. Geoff, the sixties were a messy yet exciting and alive time. That feeling came through in the production because that is the way it was. If anything, I thought the stage set was too showy, but I also understand this theatre group wants to be entertained. I would never think of a Janis Joplin concert as coherent, organized, linear experience. She was all over the damn place and that is what made Janis so exciting and alive—especially as a woman emerging out of the repressive fifties and early sixties. I had never seen or experienced a woman like Janis Joplin before, and that is what made her so life changing. Even Mama Cass was blown away at the Monterey Pop Festival the first time she saw Janis and mouthed "Wow." As far as coherent meaningful monologues, that was not Janis's forte. Plus, she was kinda stoned/drunk during her sets, which I believe made it possible to just let it rip when she sang.

    I was sorry to see the costuming so conservative in the production. Janis Joplin wore see through tops, no bras, a ton of beeds and bangles, and flowing clothes. I couldn't help but think the Joplin family tried to clean up the image of their sister a bit. But, that's OK. And yes, the band is tight in the theatre production, which is ironic since Big Brother and the Holding Company was a mediocre band that could barely keep up with Janis Joplin. That's why she eventually left and created her own band that was more skilled and less threatened by her talents.

    My biggest complaint was looking around at the audience at times and seeing people who looked half dead. I couldn't figure out why they were even there, sitting emotionless as these women sang their hearts out on stage. Either those theatre goers needed some good drugs or they were over medicated!

    All that said, GO SEE THIS PRODUCTION, it's a wonderful peek into the sixties music scene. I loved taking my daughters (21 and 14 years old) to "experience" what Janis Joplin was like. Now they have an idea of why I loved Janis Joplin, and they got some music history on black female singers and their tremendous influence on all forms of music.

    I couldn't stop smiling. Thanks to Portland Center Stage's vision and gutsiness to produce One Night with Janis. And thanks to the actor/singers who did such a great job. I think Janis would've enjoyed it!

  8. Hi All, Can't help but agree with this review, it is spot on. I enjoyed the Blues Singer role sinfully more than Cat as Janis. I absolutely enjoyed the band and rocked out with them. But I kept an eye on the audience reaction…there were a few people that "got it" and were rocking out the music and didn't worry about the rest. But there was a large group throughout the audience that thought they were seeing a stage play and didn't realize what they were getting themselves into. They looked scared, just scared and many seemed to be wanting to leave, despite the ear plugs that had been handed out. I honestly felt this dual reaction was created by the contrast between Janis and the Blues Singer role…in the end there were many of us t here for a taste of the 60's again and for us it was a fantastic night. Thanks.

  9. Wow… I saw the final performance of "One Night" today, and I could not have been more enthralled with the show unless Janis herself came out to give her blessing. I was a child at the time of Joplin's rise, likewise with a creative rebel's sense of misunderstanding and misplacement, and she catapulted me into puberty with my love of the blues and my determination to explore sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll at full throttle. I went to the show today with an open mind, not knowing what to expect, and boy am I glad I did. I suppose it"s Mr. Kleinman's job to be critical, or maybe everything just tightened up as the show ran it's course, but I disagree with almost his entire review, the exception being the monologue during Ball and Chain and his praise of the band.
    The narration during the show was poignant and sweet, and I felt Cat Stephani nailed the vulnerable misfit mixed with hard partying in your face rocker perfectly, or close enough to it to keep the audience I was in engaged, and, I felt the juxtaposition of the Blues Singer's persona as a guardian angel, a muse or a dream come to life was a brilliant stroke and not in the least confusing. Rather than "a detour from the core of the show", I felt it personified Joplin's early passion for the blues, which in a young girls heart can very easily take on a secret friend sort of reality. As the show progressed I thought Johnson's writing mixed quotes and stories, delivered convincingly and feelingly by Stephani I thought, to give a compact view of the artist's descent into alcoholism and drug addiction and the pain and longing for love and acceptance that saw her all the way to her death. And, hello… her voice? OMG… I guess maybe she put enough wear on it over the nearly five week run to do the trick, but it was powerful, impressive, overwhelming, and I came home and listened to Janis just to be sure. Yes Sabrina Elayne Carten was truly, truly impressive. She has a maturity and a range that really does justice to the legends she portrays and deserves all of the accolades she has been given, and yes, the back up vocals and band were also top caliber, but that little Cat came to the stage to bring us Janis, and between she and Randy Johnson's story they did it. As Johnson said in Marty Hughley's article, " Every story has a point of view, and this is mine." I, for one, am grateful, and by all appearances, all of the stately, gray haired sixty-somethings clapping, singing and dancing their way through the final performance today were too. It was great being that kid again.

  10. It's very possible that the show improved over the course of its run. One of the roles of theater reviews is to point out what doesn't work. Since it's live theater there's an opportunity for cast and crew to address the issues in the show that aren't working mid-run. That's why I always try to be constructive in my criticism, rather than just saying something sucked, I go into detail on what works and what doesn't. Glad you enjoyed the show and thanks for posting your thoughts here :)

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