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).