Last night was an opening night of ghosts and powerful women during the North Carolina Theatre‘s May 4-20 production of A Night with Janis Joplin, the tribute show written and directed by Tony Award® nominee Randy Johnson. Not only is Janis Joplin honored and exalted with a night of her fabulous music, but her influencers (Nina Simone, Odetta, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Bessie Smith) are in attendance to assist — and the combination of all of those stellar singers onstage make this a night of fiery stars who shine brightly, whether singing together or during their blow-the-roof-off-the-house solos.
One of the many ovations of the evening came before the performance even began when NCT’s president and CEO Elizabeth Doran introduced Janis’ sister, Laura Joplin, and the writer/director of the production, Randy Johnson, sitting in the audience. The presence is even more precious when Laura is mentioned several times during the show’s narrative by her sister Janis (played on Friday night by Francesca Ferrari). One can’t help but wonder whether Laura appreciated Ferrari’s performance as much as those of us who came to the show having seen Joplin perform during her all-too-short career.
The role of the firecracker singer is split between Ferrari and Paige McNamara, which isn’t surprising, because the raw and gravely voice must rip a singer’s throat, especially if she is not coating her voice with a bit of Jack Daniels®, as Joplin did. The concert requires every bit of power any singer can muster to scream, hit incredibly long and high notes, growl her way through the blues, and rock like none other.
Janis Joplin has held her spot as the Queen of Rock and Roll since her 1967 appearance on a stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, and no single female has ever rocked as hard as Janis. Hers are big and impressive shoes to fill, but Ferrari’s voice is up to the challenge.
Though the evening starts a bit shakily, probably due to the knowledge that Joplin’s sister is in the audience, Ferrari’s singing is never in question; and when she shadows Janis’ influencer, Etta James (played by Tawny Dolley, who also plays one of the Chantels), and wails her version of James’ “Tell Mama.”
For those who are familiar with TV’s spate of singing shows, a singer who covers another’s iconic song must put their own spin on the song; and Joplin was a master at that. Each time one of her mentors takes the stage to sing a song that Joplin learned from or adopted as her own, it’s obvious that her music sense was genius and that she knew her own instrument better than anyone else.
Joplin’s voice is as recognizable as her Joe-Cocker-esque way of moving her mouth and hands on stage, and Ferrari has the voice down pat. In fact, there are times her voice might even be a tinge better than the singer she portrays. The audience rises to their feet several times, but there’s a full-blown ovation when she sings “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Ferrari isn’t the only voice that soars to the rafters in this production. Playing Bessie Smith, Odetta, and one of the Chantels, Aurianna Angelique commands the stage, with a bluesy persona, and embodies the singers individually and muscularly. That’s saying something since Smith and Odetta have very different voices. When Angelique and Ferrari join in “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” they are equally matched. Tawny Dolley, a veteran of the international stage and talk shows, plays the incomparable Etta James with the same steamy, gravelly quality that’s so difficult to emulate. Nattalyee Randall explodes as Aretha Franklin, then becomes sensual and restrained as Nina Simone, while Jennifer Leigh Warren channels her best Blues Singer in “Today I Sing the Blues” and stops the show for yet another of the show’s standing ovations.
One of the takeaways from this show is that Joplin and the women who influenced her simply have no comparables in today’s music industry. Yes, Beyoncé, Rhianna, Christina Aguilera, and others have fabulous voices; but there’s no one who explodes like Joplin, no women who can dig into the blues like Odette or Aretha, no one can rock better than Janis Joplin.
When Francesca Ferrari sings “Cry Baby,” she screams better than Joplin, who literally punched a hole in the ceiling for women in rock and blues, but Ferrari also can summon a heavenly high voice, as well as a thoughtful persona who talks about the history of Joplin’s music. There are moments that need to be packaged and captured, quotes that need to be written down (“Songwriters are the real intellectuals”) and notes that will never be sung again in the exact way Joplin did.
Ferrari is breathtakingly wonderful, the other voices in the show are spectacular, and the ripping guitar solo reminds you of the history of rock and roll. This is the way you cover a rock star’s music!
And the voices aren’t the only stars. The Band supports the singer in a way that would make Big Brother and the Holding Company proud. Some of the guitar solos are enough to take the spotlight off Joplin for the briefest of seconds — but she always steals it back.
NCT’s rendition of A Night with Janis Joplin is at the Duke Center for the Performing Arts’ Fletcher Opera Theater through Sunday, May 20th; and if you know and love Joplin, or even if have never heard her voice, you need to do yourself a favor and see the best rock show in town before Joplin and her ghosts move on with a piece of your heart.
SECOND OPINION: May 5th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-NORTH-CAROLINA-THEATRES-A-NIGHT-WITH-JANIS-JOPLIN-Rocks-the-Fletcher-Opera-Theater-20180505 and April 29th BWW Interview with Paige McNamara and Francesca Ferrari, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Paige-McNamara-and-Francesca-Ferrari-Step-Into-Rock-Icons-Shoes-in-A-NIGHT-WITH-JANIS-JOPLIN-at-NORTH-CAROLINA-THEATRE-20180429; May 4th Raleigh, NC Spectrum News interview with actresses Francesca Ferrari and Tawny Dolley, conducted by Tara Herrschaft: http://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/in-depth-interview/2018/05/04/in-depth–a-night-with-janis-joplin; May 3rd Raleigh, NC B93.9 Country interview with actresses Jennifer Leigh Warren and Nattalyee Randall, conducted by Madeline Drake: https://b939country.iheart.com/featured/behind-the-curtain/content/2018-05-02-a-night-with-janis-joplin/; May 3rd Raleigh, NC KIX 102.9 FM interview with actresses Paige McNamara and Aurianna Angelique, conducted by Doug Austin: http://www.kix1029.com/2018/05/03/interview-a-night-with-janis-joplin/; May 2nd Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/arts/archives/2018/05/02/spend-a-night-with-janis-joplin-courtesy-of-nc-theatre and May 1st mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/a-night-with-janis-joplin/Event?oid=8648777; and April 28th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article209817894.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the May 3rd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/05/francesca-ferrari-and-paige-mcnamara-will-alternate-in-the-title-role-in-a-night-with-janis-joplin-at-nct/.)
The North Carolina Theatre presents A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, with Francesca Ferrari and Paige McNamara alternating as Janis Joplin, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 5 and 6, 7:30 p.m. May 8-11, 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 12 and 13, 7:30 p.m. May 15-18, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 19 and 20 in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $27.26-$70.22, except $29 college-student tickets.
BOX OFFICE: NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext. 6944, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/season-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/1587720.
2017-18 SEASON: https://nctheatre.com/show-season/201718-season.
NCT NEWS RELEASE: https://nctheatre.com/blog/nc-theatre-announces-cast-night-janis-joplin.
PRESENTER: http://www.nctheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/nctheatre, https://twitter.com/nctheatre, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/nctheatre.
NCT BLOG (Stage Notes): http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.
NOTE 1: For the run of the show, there will be an art exhibit near A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, entitled The Fashion and Art of the Blues: Janis Joplin, Her Style, and Her Heroes. NCT says, “[This exhibit] includes authentic items from the Janis Joplin estate (Janis’ clothing and her famous tambourine). Additionally, guests will learn about the historic styles of some of Janis’ biggest musical influences, which included Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone and more….”
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, May 5th, performance.
NOTE 3: At 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 6th, there will be a panel discussion on The Musical Muses of Janis Joplin, moderated by NCT board member and Raleigh Arts Commission board member Chanda Branch and including N.C. State University African American Cultural Center director, playwright, and theater director Moses T. Alexander Greene; N.C. African American Heritage Commission chair Valerie Ann Johnson, Ph.D.; North Carolina Arts Council music director Carly P. Jones; and A Night with Janis Joplin actress Jennifer Leigh Warren. NCT writes, “The discussion will highlight the profound impact Janis Joplin’s significant musical influences, amazing African-American artists Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin, have had on arts and culture….”
Janis Joplin (blues and rock singer-songwriter, 1943-70): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Janis-Joplin (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.janisjoplin.net/ (fan site), https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjo69 (The Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association), https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/janis-joplin (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/janis-joplin-495465 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0429767/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janis_Joplin (Wikipedia).
A Night with Janis Joplin (2013 Broadway musical): http://anightwithjanisjoplin.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/a-night-with-janis-joplin-494971 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Night_with_Janis_Joplin (Wikipedia). Study Guide: http://anightwithjanisjoplin.com/about.html (official website).
Randy Johnson (playwright and director): https://www.randy-johnson1.com/ (official website) and https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/randy-johnson-493057 (Internet Broadway Database).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.