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Another Little Piece of Joplin: Reworked “Night” returns to the Playhouse

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Update: The Pasadena Playhouse has extended the run of this show until August 23.

Just a little over two years ago, a tribute to the woman dubbed The Queen of Rock first appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse. More than just the usual tribute show, what was then called “One Night with Janis Joplin” used an evening of song and conversation with Mary Bridget Davies’ Joplin to explore the roots of her music, her strong ties to traditional blues, and the passion which brought her to toss aside a middle class lifestyle in favor of the short but important life she would have in rock and roll. The show was a solid hit.

Now, after some revision and a trip to Broadway, where Davies was nominated for a Tony, what is now called “A Night with Janis Joplin” has returned to the Playhouse. In some ways the changes have added depth and balance to the show’s storyline and energy. In some others, the focus on Joplin herself has blunted a bit. Still, the end result is one enjoyable trip back to the late 60s, and the melding of musical forms which was so central to that entire period.

Randy Johnson, who wrote this homage and also directs, was specifically concerned with not just creating a classic “tribute band” kind of concert, and that still remains. What has expanded is the look at those blues – and the great performers who sang them – which so inspired Joplin to become a singer herself. In the show’s biggest change, rather than having one person try to be all of those great talents, separate members of the chorus of “Joplinaires” have moments in the sun as Etta James (Jenelle Lyn Randall), Bessie Smith and Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), a symbolic “blues singer” representing all those lesser known voices from the past (Sharon Catherine Brown), and most especially Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Yvette Cason). Plus, all four gather together to be the girl-group Joplin admired, the Chantels.

With all these different and highly talented voices expressing the traditionally African-American roots which shaped Joplin’s own style (though she admits in the script that she only sounds like “a white chick singing the blues”), the structure of the production proves more balanced. Each singer had (and in this show has) her own style and structure, and it becomes a treat to see how each of these influenced specific aspects of both Joplin’s sound and her choice of repertoire.

Of course, central to the whole thing is Davies’ Janis. She looks the part, as she always has, and gives her all to the raspy joy of Joplin’s singing. In the course of the last few years that has morphed a bit. She’s no longer an imitator, with exactly the same sounds as one could find on a recording. Rather, the whole focus on matching Joplin to her influences has let a bit more creativity sneak in. Sometimes lyrics once intelligible get lost in the soaring shouts which express the energy of the moment – a shift which can be exciting or annoying. Sometimes the tune takes second place to spoken observations. Still the magnetism is there, and the feel of Joplin’s music. And there is all that fearsome energy, especially when the first act closer – a duet between Joplin’s Queen of Rock and Aretha’s Queen of Soul – rocks the house in memorable ways.

What “A Night with Janis Joplin” now offers, in ways which were more hinted at the first time through, is a demonstration of musical forces which surrounded her and moved her toward stardom. This is not a biography, except a musical one, and doesn’t touch on the things we all know came with that stardom: the lifestyle and drugs which would lead to her death at the height of both her popularity and her own personal satisfaction with her music. Once again, as with the first version, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Janis Joplin had had a chance to mature as an artist past age 27. But then, one could ask that of many of the most terrific musical talents of that era.

What: A Night with Janis Joplin When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $45 – $150 Info: 626-356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Kiss Me Kate” at Pasadena Playhouse: an old friend, a new spin

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in “Kiss Me Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Earl Gibson III]

The story of “Kiss Me Kate” has always been worthy of note. The first winner of a Tony for Best Musical, it was the surprise come-back victory for Cole Porter, and his most successful creation in a lifetime of writing songs for the theater. Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, and inspired by famed 1930s productions adapting familiar shows to an African American cast, director Sheldon Epps has taken this backstage musical in a similar direction.

For the most part, this offers up a freshness, making a wittily familiar favorite something one can see through a new lens. Still, there is some unevenness to tighten up before it has all of the impact one could wish.

The essential story looks at a theater company about to start their out-of-town try-out of a new musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The director, producer and star is a famed and rather pompous actor named Fred who has recruited the equally famous wife he divorced a year before to play Katherine, the female lead. Thus the edgy relationship between their characters onstage is reflected in an equal edginess offstage, with comic results. Meanwhile the secondary female, playing Bianca, hangs all over Fred while stringing along her longtime partner, whose gambling habit is about to get everyone in trouble.

Beginning with the blues/gospel styling of the iconic “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the audience knows this production is going to be challenging its expectations. Jenelle Lynn Randall, as the leading lady’s dresser, grabs attention from the very first note. Merle Dandridge, as the obstinate Katherine, lives up to the romantic yet commanding part of the spurned lover ready for change, and sings the great “So In Love” from deep in her soul.

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer  [Photo: Earl Gibson III]

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer [Photo: Earl Gibson III]


Joanna A. Jones makes a deliciously wicked Bianca, delighted in her own sexuality, while, as her partner, Terrance Spencer’s gee-whiz charm and muscular dancing make that couple’s moments on stage among the most entertaining. Also impressive as a dancer is Rogelio Douglas, Jr., whose “Too Darned Hot” with Randall provides the steamiest moment. Indeed, the entire company – ensemble most definitely included – puts their whole heart and soul into this undertaking with attractive results.

A special nod goes to John Iacovelli for a set which evokes period without becoming boxy, and to David K. Mickelsen for the colorful costumes which evoke the quasi-period feel and the color of old style Broadway musicals. These two help to keep the show in its own era: as a self-styled “American Negro Theater” production in the 1940s.

There are a couple of issues, however. The much-touted star, Wayne Brady, makes that central figure of the producer/actor/director extremely human, but almost too human, too sensitive. The character needs to be, at least when “on,” more of a figure of ego, capturing the stage with an almost larger-than-life quality. That would make his more human, more fragile private moments stand out. Here it all blends, which dilutes the energy of the piece – a situation not aided by a singing voice occasionally on the edge of flatness.

Also, though Jeffrey Polk’s choreography is lively and sometimes impressively athletic, its overt sexuality sometimes seems out of keeping with the time period portrayed. As example, why would an actress’ dresser strip down, mid-show, on opening night, in an alley?

Still, it is fun to see “Kiss Me Kate” again, and fascinating to see how small shifts here and there create a new underlying theme to the piece. And, of course, one more chance to hear that silly song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is never amiss. Also, the opening of this production signals the unveiling of the new carpet and especially the new seats in the theater. That in itself is worthy of celebration.

What: “Kiss Me Kate” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $57 – $145 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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