Janis Joplin lives again.
The ill-fated queen of rock 'n' roll is holding court at San Jose Rep in the full-tilt musical "One Night with Janis Joplin." Created and directed by Randy Johnson, this is more of a theatrical concert than a play, but there's no denying the electrifying intensity of this two hour, 20 minute staging. It's a high-wattage flashback to the psychedelic '60s when the Haight-Ashbury was the center of the universe, and Joplin reigned supreme in the realm of bell bottoms, lava lamps and love beads.
This highly-anticipated regional premiere, already one of the best-selling shows in Rep history, has been extended through Oct. 6.
The formidable Kacee Clanton channels the wild-child fury of Joplin, shaking the rafters through a songlist that includes anthems such as "Piece of My Heart," "Cry Baby," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "Mercedes-Benz." Clanton, a veteran of the musical "Love, Janis," recreates Joplin's raspy vocals with uncanny purity. She nails Joplin's mind-boggling range, from the husky purr of "Me and Bobby McGee" to the incandescent screech and howl of "Ball and Chain."
The charismatic singer-actress, who will alternate in the lead role for the show's upcoming Broadway run, knows how to seduce a crowd as well as belt out a song. She's half diva, half earth mother and she summons up the iconic singer's unmistakable combination of grace and grit with breathtaking force.
She connects with the music deeply and that sense of intimacy is the show's most intoxicating quality. Her lusty evocation of Joplin's whiskey-soaked wail is nothing less than unforgettable. She nails the ache in the lyrics and the bliss in the notes. When she says "no man has made me feel as good as an audience," you believe every word.
The rambunctious backup band and a trio of singers dubbed the Joplinaires (Cari Hutson, Shinnerrie Jackson and Tricky Jones) added to the vibe.
Unfortunately, as explosive as the songs here are, the exposition feels clumsy. When Joplin regales us with stories from her childhood or her affinity for the blues, the show loses some of its bat-out-of- hell momentum.
The dialogue doesn't dig deeply enough into the singer's psyche. Johnson touches on Joplin's lust to party (she swigs from a bottle of hooch throughout the show) but never delves into the darkness of her addictions. That gives this musical biography a sense of slightness that undercuts the revelatory quality of the musical performances.
Johnson does try to ground Joplin's sound within the context of her sources of inspiration, namely great blues and soul singers such as Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. One flat-out amazing singer, Tiffany Mann, morphs from one legendary songstress to another throughout the show. But despite Mann's mind-blowing pipes and the irresistible nature of songs such as "Spirit in the Dark" and "I Shall Be Released," these interludes pull us out of Joplin's story. The blues singer ends up feeling like a distraction from the main attraction.
Johnson needs to find a way to let Janis and her musical idols interact with each other more potently.
"One Night" also has some choppy pacing in the second act and the hippie wigs on the guys in the band are less than convincing. But these are quibbles in the face of the show's rawness, power and electricity.
Spending "One Night With Janis Joplin" is still far out, man.
'ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN'
Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson
Through: Oct. 6
Where: San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $28-$79, 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com