Janis Joplin sang with a raw honesty that can never be imitated — and nobody knows that better than the two singers who portray the 1960s rock and roll icon in “A Night With Janis Joplin.” The play, which features the music of Joplin as well as her musical influences — Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith — returned to the Pasadena Playhouse this week, two years after it was featured at the Playhouse.
Mary Bridget Davies delivered a sensational performance in the leading role during the 2013 production. But during its current run Davies will alternate the role with Kacee Clanton, a former back-up singer for Joe Cocker, Luis Miguel and Beth Hart who teaches voice and performance at LA College of Music in Pasadena.
Clanton said the role of Joplin required two actresses because it is “exhausting. It’s really impossible for one person to do it.” She spends a few hours warming up for the show, “limbering up my body, getting a lot of sleep, water and steam. Playing Janis is an athletic event.”
Although she likens her Northern California twang to Joplin’s Port Arthur, Texas accent, Clanton said she does not try to reproduce Joplin’s unique voice: “Our director (Randy Johnson) is very specific that we’re not imitating; we’re emulating.”
Joplin was familiar with folk music and blues, and listened to her mother’s collection of Broadway show albums. But when she began singing rock and roll, Clanton said Joplin created a new style of music: “The beauty of Janis is that she didn’t know what she was doing. … That freed her up to do anything she liked. She had an honesty and rawness that was not from any movement.”
Clanton makes her Playhouse debut at 4 p.m. Saturday and will perform at the same time each Saturday, as well as at 7 p.m. on Sundays. Davies will take over the role of Joplin for the play’s remaining performances.
The two singers had a similar arrangement when “A Night With Janis Joplin” ran on Broadway in 2013 and 2014. Davies’ portrayal earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.
Clanton has been singing Joplin’s music for more than a decade. In 2001, she was cast as the singer in “Love, Janis,” which originated as an off-Broadway rock musical. Clanton performed the play in several cities, including Kansas City, Rochester and San Diego.
The music director for the show was Sam Andrews, founding member and guitarist for Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band that backed Janis from 1966 until 1968 and continued to perform after she left the group. Andrews invited Clanton to be the group’s lead singer.
Clanton’s first show with the band was at the 2002 reopening of the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, the site of BBHC’s concerts with Joplin in the 1960s. Clanton opened the show with “Down on Me,” one of Joplin’s trademark numbers at her Avalon Ballroom performances. Clanton later fronted BBHC at concerts throughout the United States and Europe.
While touring with the band, Clanton said she met “all the guys from Janis’ past.” The person who impressed her the most was the owner of Ted’s Record Shop in Port Arthur, Joplin’s hometown. Joplin had performed on the sidewalk in front of the store when she was a teenager.
By the time he met Clanton, Ted was very old and not in good health. “He handed me a gift bag. In the gift bag was the last T-shirt from Ted’s Record Shop and he gave it to me,” she said.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” runs until Aug. 16 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $55 to $150. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org for more information.