ESSEX — “A Night with Janis Joplin” at the Ivoryton Playhouse through June 24, delivers on its promise: a Joplin concert that also reveals her musical influences and is punctuated by only a few subtle references to the singer’s troubled life and tragic death. That death — of a heroin overdose at age 27 — hangs uneasily over this piece, which was created, written, and co-directed (with Ty Rhodes) by Randy Johnson.
Johnson’s determination to give us a great time feels a bit forced (we can’t erase what we know, after all). But there’s nothing forced about Paige McNamara’s Joplin. She takes us back to the ’60s and brings Janis to electrifying life.
The role is, understandably, so vocally taxing that two actors alternate. On opening night, McNamara embodied the role beyond what seems possible. Not only does she look uncannily like Joplin in her prime, but she also explodes with the singer’s wild energy. Unable to stand still, jerking her limbs, shaking her wrists as if conducting the drumbeats, and punching the air in triumph to end every song, McNamara’s Joplin is a young woman possessed by music. In quieter moments, her charisma, combined with a hint of little girl bravado, instantly closes the distance between performer and audience. She makes us feel loved and also desperately needed. This is a bravura turn.
In place of Joplin’s life story, writer Johnson has made a wise move: he has the singer introduce us to those blues sisters whom she idolized and took wholly into her artistic and emotional heart. This is wise partly because the performer playing Janis needs an occasional break, and partly because hearing these different voices makes Joplin’s sound feel not less original, but infinitely more.
We first meet Etta James, the terrific Tawney Dowley, singing “Tell Mama” with Joplin and “The Joplinairs.” Then we learn that Joplin’s Texan mother loved Broadway musicals above all kinds of music, and that Joplin and her brother and younger sister, doing their chores to those classic tunes, learned every song. “Porgy and Bess” was Joplin’s absolute favorite. “I wore that LP out, man.” At this point, the remarkable Amma Osei sings the first verse of “Summer Time,” and Janis makes the song her own.
Osei is also remarkable as Nina Simone, singing, with Joplin, “Little Girl Blue.” We’ve learned that Joplin initially wanted to be a painter, and here Darrel Maloney’s projections hit their high point: Janis’s portrait of Laura, her own little sister, is heartbreakingly lovely.
Odetta was another of Joplin’s idols, and Aurianna Angelique’s rendition of “Down on Me” is haunting. Like McNamara with Joplin, Angelique channels Odetta with emotional purity, and her voice is superb. Angelique returns as Bessie Smith, singing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and here, too, she proves not only a consummate singer but also a fine actor: for the length of the song, we are back in Smith’s era and in her world. Lost but defiant is hard to play, but Angelique’s Bessie nails it.
Providing the most amazing vocal pyrotechnics (aside from McNamara herself) Jennifer Leigh Warren, as “The Blues Singer,” defies what would seem humanly possible in her rendition of “Today I Sing the Blues” and “Kozmic Blues.” Joplin introduces this character by saying that every woman sings the blues, and Warren, in a simple blouse and straight skirt — a sharp contrast to the others’ elaborate costumes — proves this and then some.
Kathleen Gephart (costume coordinator, working from Amy Clark’s original costume designs) and Elizabeth Saylor Cipollina (wig/hair coordinator, working from the original designs of Leah Loukas) perfectly capture personality, time, and place. Brian Prather (scenic designer) has created a set that both transports us to a Joplin concert and provides the theatrical flourish of an upper level and a spiral staircase. Ryan O’Gara’s lighting design is truly psychedelic (come prepared!), and Michael Morris directs the music with a sure hand.
Backing the singers — and often taking the stage — is a band worthy of Janis Joplin herself. All are amazing, but Michael Blancaflor on drums blows the roof off.
Joplin fans will be on their feet for much of the evening. Those less familiar with her music will leave “A Night with Janis Joplin” seeking more — not only more music, but also a deeper understanding of this wild and astonishing Rock and Roll Queen.