Friday, July 19, 2013

Me and My Janis McGee

My uncle died a few years ago, but one of my many fond memories of him is how he turned me on to Janis Joplin back in the late ‘60s. I can still remember him excitedly describing this woman who could really belt out a song. She had such a distinctive voice! She wasn’t just simply a singer—her voice was like a mechanical instrument, and when the song called for it, she used it like a sledge hammer in a china shop. She wasn’t inclined to fake it or simply “mail it in” when she performed—she really gave you her all. Unfortunately, like some other celebrities, she spiraled into substance abuse and died. Just like an actual giant star, she went supernova prior to extinguishing herself, before I ever had the chance to see her.

I discovered long ago that Anna also admired Janis. When we travel together on long car trips, Anna and I have enjoyed listening to audiobooks. One problem is that I have always preferred non-fiction (why not learn something while reading?), while she is a fan of fiction. We have to work to find books that both of us are interested in committing several hours to, and I must admit, most of the time she allows us to end up with non-fiction books. On a trip over ten years ago, one of the audiobooks we had agreed to listen to was Janis Joplin’s biography that her sister Laura had written, because we both have an affinity for her music and that era. It was quite a tale!

Many of you know that we are big fans of the performers at Shadowbox, a unique sketch comedy and rock’n’roll theater in Columbus, Ohio (it is a bit like Saturday Night Live). A few years ago they created a musical based on the real-life events that took place at Woodstock, entitled “Back to the Garden” ( We’ve seen this show at least half-a-dozen times over the years, and it is fantastic (especially when performed outside, as it was this past Memorial Day weekend in downtown Columbus). One of the highlights for me was the part of the show where Janis Joplin performs. I thought that Shadowbox’s “Back to the Garden” would be my closest opportunity to get the experience of seeing Janis perform a song—but I was wrong.

It turns out that there is a new show called “One Night with Janis Joplin” which is being performed at the Arena Stage Theater in Washington, DC. It is set to premiere on Broadway later this year, but they are perfecting the final version on the road in DC through August 11. Fortunately, we were able to get tickets for the Saturday night show of the weekend when we were going to be in our nation’s capital.

After a full day of sightseeing around downtown DC, as well as dinner at a nearby waterfront restaurant, we settled into our seats for the show. However, we didn’t stay in our seats the whole time. I’ve never been to a show that received so many standing ovations during the performance!

Describing this show is not a simple task—it is a combination of a show as well as a concert. I guess you could call it a “show-cert.” Besides singing her best music, “Janis” often reminisces between songs, and other very talented singers take the stage imitating some of her artistic influences like blues singers Etta James and Bessie Smith. There is even a bit of dream sequence where the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performs with Janis at a live concert. You also get to see some of Janis’s paintings, as well as her fashion sense. Plus, did I mention that the on-stage band really rocks?

We really enjoyed seeing this show-cert! I never got to see Janis Joplin perform in real life, but this is probably the next best thing. The actress who portrays Janis can belt out a song just like she did (and on this particular night, the understudy replaced the normal star and did a fantastic job).

I hope that “One Night with Janis Joplin” does well on Broadway, but I know that the Great White Way can be a tough place to succeed. We visited New York City a few years back, and a new musical based on the life and music of John Lennon had just opened. We didn’t get to see it that trip, but I thought maybe we’d catch it the next time we were there, because surely that would be a popular show. However, it folded pretty quickly, never to be seen again.

I must admit that I worry about the impact on the vocal cords of the women who portray Janis. The constant performing schedule required by Broadway could be tough to survive (no matter how much Southern Comfort you swig from the bottle to soothe your throat). But it is incredibly exhilarating to listen to that voice while it lasts! So if you like Janis Joplin, or even if you just want to be transported back to the ‘60s for a night, I highly recommend this show-cert. And remember, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…”

Shown above is the poster for this memorable show.

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