‘Night with Janis’ doesn’t get to the heart of Joplin

Minutes into “A Night with Janis Joplin,” the title character says she’s “going to tell it like it is.”

In the new American Conservatory Theater production, it’s a fairly empty promise. Written and directed by Randy Johnson, the show starts as a biographical tribute, but ends up more of a jukebox musical.

That’s too bad, because Joplin was one of the most enigmatic musicians in 1960s San Francisco. Enormously talented, she burned out young and died at age 27. But anyone who was lucky enough to see her perform at her peak (I was one of those) will tell you she burned brightly before her demons got the best of her.

Unfortunately, what those demons were remain obscure in Johnson’s tribute, which traces Joplin’s path from her early days in Port Arthur, Texas, to her heyday in San Francisco as the star singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company.

There’s scarcely a hint of the troubles — the drinking, the drugs, the depression — that eventually brought her down.

Kacee Clanton is remarkable in the title role. She certainly has the voice for Joplin: pacing the stage, swigging from a bottle of Southern Comfort, she wails, belts and soars through signature songs such as “Down on Me,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” and a riveting, show-stopping “Ball and Chain.”

Less effective is her portrayal of the fragile, lost little girl quality that, combined with her toughness, made Joplin so compelling. Clanton is tough and chatty, but her performance doesn’t suggest vulnerability.

Joplin’s love for the blues and the women who sang them is reinforced by singers Sharon Catherine Brown, Ashley Tamar Davis, Tawny Dolley and Sylvia Maccalla, who come on as Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin to sing influential songs. MacCalla, channeling Bessie Smith, is especially poignant in “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” a number that seems to foreshadow Joplin’s lonely last days.

Coinciding with San Francisco’s citywide Summer of Love celebration, the show has top-notch production values — Rob Bissinger’s two-tier set, Amy Clark’s swinging 60s costumes, Patricia Wilcox’s exuberant choreography — and a rocking band led by music director Todd Olson.

Still, there’s a hole at the center of “An Night with Janis Joplin.” Even when life was good, there was something tragic about this artist.

Maybe putting that onstage would be too much of a downer, and this show is a celebration. For some theatergoers, that’s probably enough. For the rest of us, a big part of the story is missing.

A Night with Janis Joplin
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 9
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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