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Laguna Playhouse brings ‘Janis Joplin’ to life

By ERIC MARCHESE

It’s been nearly 47 years since Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose, but a visit to Laguna Playhouse offers fans a chance to see the legendary rock singer in her prime.

That’s thanks to a remarkable performance by Kelly McIntyre in “A Night With Janis Joplin,” a stage show remarkable in every way imaginable.

Created and written by Randy Johnson, the 2013 Broadway rock ’n’ roll musical is presented in association with Joplin’s estate, which may help explain the level of verisimilitude it carries. Johnson’s directing his own script certainly helps account for how the show uncannily re-creates the look and feel of a Janis Joplin concert.

Front and center are music director Todd Olson’s onstage keyboard work heading the show’s incredible eight-man band; the cast’s four mind-blowing female vocalists, collectively called “The Joplinaires”; and McIntyre’s transcendent performance, which seems dedicated to single-handedly resurrecting the spirit and singular personality of one of rock’s most unforgettable stars.

Nor would the show’s authenticity be possible without the interlocking elements of Brian Prather’s scenic design, which captures the look of the iconic Fillmore music hall; Amy Clark’s costumes, spanning the 1920s through the late ’60s; Ryan O’Gara’s often psychedelic lighting; and Rafe Carlotto’s thundering sound design.

“Janis Joplin” really gives us two Joplin personas: Younger Janis and her origins in Port Arthur and Austin, Texas, (Act 1) and Joplin in her prime (Act 2) in San Francisco’s fabled Haight-Ashbury district.

Along the way, Johnson’s ingenious script also traces the arc of celebrated female vocalists like Bessie Smith (Carol Hatchett), Odetta (Hatchett), Nina Simone (Amma Osei), Etta James (Tawny Dolley) and Aretha Franklin (Osei), singers whose inner strength Joplin idolized as much as their artistry.

And as “Janis Joplin” so potently proves, it was pretty much a straight line from Smith, through the others, directly to Joplin, a white woman who internalized the musical form of the blues so thoroughly that she carried it to new levels.

It’s that absolute immersion in her music that made Joplin the legendary singer she came to be – and it’s that all-consuming dedication Johnson’s show captures, thanks to McIntyre’s inhabiting her role so completely, she seems to be channeling the performer.

As canny is how Johnson walks the line between the show’s relating Joplin’s life story, at one extreme, and staging a sort of greatest-hits homage or tribute show that simulates the experience of attending a Joplin rock concert, re-creating 16 of her most iconic songs.

As the show proves, Joplin’s singular look, onstage persona and raspy, throaty voice weren’t an act – they were the product of a real person expressing her personality and feelings. In literally singing her heart out, McIntyre accurately and uncannily nails Joplin’s mesmeric quality.

Up front are the explosive vocals and uninhibited ferocity – no soft, soothing crooning here. As crucial is McIntyre’s delivery of Joplin’s indomitable spirit and refusal to compromise her integrity or ideals.

The quintessential Joplin number “Cry Baby” starts with a long, wailing howl – then McIntyre sings the holy heck out of it. Here and in other iconic songs – “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and the extraordinary, wrenching “Piece of My Heart”– McIntyre cements the image of Joplin as a hard-livin’, hard-lovin’ toughie.

Dolley, Hatchett and Osei provide dazzling support as Joplin’s multi-generational idols, and Osei and Sharon Catherine Brown also embody two ubiquitous generic characters: “Blues Woman” (Osei) and “Blues Singer” (Brown).

As the latter, the petite but insanely dynamic Brown and her incredible lung power blow the roof off the theater with volcanic performances of “Kozmic Blues” and the defiance-drenched “Today I Sing the Blues.”

In fascinating, entertaining fashion, the show reveals how Joplin transformed slower-tempo, achy blues numbers like “Summertime,” “Down on Me” and “Little Girl Blue” into full-on rock classics, complete with Joplin’s patented vocal style.

The combination of vocals and instruments yields an authentic rock concert performance – a big, virtual “wall of sound.” While all eight musicians are top-notch, the band’s horn section (David Catalan, Patrick Lenertz and Aaron O. Smith) creates within Len Rhodes’ arrangements a big, brassy Motown sound. Lead guitarist Mark Chosak also contributes mightily, adding several killer solo passages.

The show’s grand finale puts the entire cast and band up front for the pulsing gospel number “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.” It’s followed by McIntyre’s solo of the lighthearted “Mercedes Benz,” which functions as the encore, accompanied only by the audience’s rhythmic clapping.

Clark provides two distinct looks for McIntyre: Early Janis’ proto-hippie garb and, for the second half, an elegant black and blue suede outfit with silver-cuffed pants and the singer’s trademark jewelry. Darrel Maloney’s projections include a real treat – a look at some of Joplin’s own paintings and drawings.

Joplin was as much a music fan as anyone, surrendering herself to and getting swept along by music’s power. That absorption of and into the music is what affected her audiences.

Experience this “Night” and you’ll similarly be buoyed by the music’s raw power – and by McIntyre’s phenomenal, transcendent performance.