By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré has been trying to bring Janis Joplin to New Orleans for more than two years and, as any music lover can tell you, that’s more than 51 years after she died.
Of course, it’s not the real Janis Joplin. It’s actually Leslie McDonel, who portrays the late rock icon in A Night with Janis Joplin, a show that ran for 22 previews and 141 performances at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. Like Joplin, McDonel is originally from Texas and closely identifies with the many musical influences that shaped Joplin’s career.
Several of these key figures are presented on stage and include Bessie Smith and Odetta (Joanna Hale-McGill), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Nattalyee Randall) and Etta James (Tawny Dolley). These supporting cast members also form girl group The Chantels and backup up McDonel’s performances as the fictional Joplinaires.
A Night with Janis Joplin is the brainchild of writer, director and producer Randy Johnson. First known for his popular musical Always, Patsy Cline, Johnson developed the work on the rock legend with several regional productions before taking it to Broadway. Following its Broadway run, A Night with Janis Joplin also toured to various venues such as in 2017 when the American Conservatory Theatre produced it at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco. That’s where Le Petit’s producing executive director Don-Scott Cooper first became involved with the work and where he became an advocate for bringing it to New Orleans, shortly after his arrival here.
The bottom line is no matter how good the supporting cast is – and they are all very good – without a convincing performer to channel the performances of Janis Joplin and to accurately portray the role she built as a White woman in bridging the blues into rock music, this show would be an empty shell. To be sure, McDonel has the pipes, the exuberance, the winning smile and the charisma needed for this leading role. She makes the show an experience, not just a concert.
The unnamed players who provide musical support to the singers on stage also do a great job in rendering the musical selections, very closely recreating the arrangements Joplin had with Big Brother and the Holding Company and later when she had her own backing ensemble. Todd Olson serves as music director bringing together a tight group of horn players (trombone, trumpet and saxophone) to accentuate the backbeat of the drums and the bass with that of the rhythm of the guitar.
This is a musical journey for the audience, too. They learn of the importance of Bessie Smith, the so-called “Empress of the Blues,” whose performances struck an early nerve for Joplin and led her to become a disciple of the blues as well as to appreciate the musical idioms of folk exemplified by Odetta, jazz-blues which defined Nina Simone and soul and rhythm and blues rendered by Aretha Franklin and Etta James. It is James’ “Tell Mama” that starts this tribute to Joplin, fittingly led by Dolley, who also serves as associate director and assistant to the choreographer.
As a White female figure who imprinted the blues on rock music, Janis Joplin was as important as Elvis Presley was in bringing a White face to rock and roll music. Though the book doesn’t go into much description, the actual journey Joplin endured took her from her native Texas to bohemian New York and, eventually, to psychedelic San Francisco, where she made her biggest splash when she performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
McDonel begins with her treatment of DuBose Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a classic blues-tinged staple taken from the opera cum musical theatre work Porgy and Bess. Her sultry treatment with a rock guitar and drums backing up her vocals sets the mood for the raw emotion of “Piece of My Heart,” another of the hits taken from her final album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Cheap Thrills.” The other celebrated piece on the album was Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” which we hear later in Act Two.
As Janis, McDonel joins with Randall as Aretha and the two deliver a sublime rendition of “Spirit in the Dark,” backed by the other Joplinaire vocalists, who encourage clapping and audience participation. Even the dead – grateful or not – would be moved by this powerful Act One closing performance.
Act Two takes off right away with the crowd pleaser “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” with the horn section ringing out loud and true. McDonel follows up with a powerful version of “Maybe,” one of Joplin’s first big hits as a solo artist. The audience cannot help but respond back enthusiastically following an almost incendiary moment on stage.
Likewise, “Ball and Chain” provides electric chills in Act Two that are hard to describe. The performance is as powerful as a true concert experience and delicately balanced as art of the highest magnitude.
Other crowd pleasers include Randall as Nina and her rendition of “Little Girl Blue,” which leads into the plaintive “Cry, Baby” and the uptempo “Me and Bobby McGee.” As Janis, McDonel admits it didn’t matter that Kris Kristofferson had originally written the song to describe a woman. She made the song her own and altered it so that she was singing about a restless man.
The 11th hour number is the appropriately titled “I’m Going to Rock My Way To Heaven” with the Joplinaires individually taking turns as introductory lead vocalists before turning the center stage over to McDonel. It’s Johnson’s way of acknowledging that despite her all-too-brief life on earth, Joplin’s music and her legacy will long survive her.
A highly anticipated a capella encore, which shall remain nameless, closes out the show with enthusiastic audience members rising to their feet and singing along with the stage actors. This may not be the real Janis Joplin – or any of the other historic figures – but it’s an experience that combines both concert and performance in a contrived, but thoroughly enjoyable manner.
Costumes, which are quite detailed are designed by Amy Clark. The set design by Brian Prather is highly complimented by very detailed projections overseen by Janius Lanius III as production manager. Important lighting (Ryan O’Gara) and sound design (Lawrence Schrober) greatly accentuate this work. Even though there is not much movement on stage, there is some well crafted choreography by Patricia Wilcox.
A Night with Janis Joplin (2 hours and 25 minutes) created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, continues its run at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter St. in New Orleans now through May 29, 2022. Shows are nightly on Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. To purchase tickets, click here. Off site parking is available at reduced rates. For more information, dial 504-522-2081.