For Kelly McIntyre, it was just another audition — part of her new routine as a young actress trying to get started in New York. The Newton North High School graduate showed up first thing in the morning and put her name on the list. And then waited.
She’d moved to the city shortly after graduating from University of Hartford’s Hartt School six months prior. Without an agent or any other business representation, she quickly got used to the routine of sitting around all day at auditions for casting directors to see members of the actors’ union first, before she’d eventually hear her name called.
On this day, McIntyre got the part. Her first big job was a major one: the alternate for the lead in “A Night With Janis Joplin.” She spelled star Mary Bridget Davies, who’d been nominated for a Tony Award for the role, on matinees during the show’s first national tour in 2016.
McIntyre has since bumped up to the full-time lead for the show’s second national tour, which visits the Boch Center Shubert Theatre for three performances beginning Friday. (Katrina Rose Dideriksen is scheduled to play the role in the Saturday matinee.)
“It’s going to be crazy,” she says of her homecoming performance. “Some people that are coming to see it haven’t seen me or heard me sing since middle school or high school.”
When they see her again, she’ll be filling some big shoes.
Joplin, of course, is one of the most distinctive vocal stylists of the rock era. She cemented her legacy with a body of work that includes just four studio albums — augmented by posthumously released live performances — recorded before she died of an accidental heroin overdose in 1970, at age 27.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” is structured as a two-set rock concert, with live band and four additional singers who split time as backup vocalists and as featured performers who bring a series of Joplin’s key musical influences to life. This aspect is key to the story the show tells.
Joplin’s family gave Randy Johnson, the show’s writer and director, access to her personal papers, including letters and journals.
“The thing that really struck me the most was she was profoundly influenced by these extraordinary women who led the way for her,” he says. “We’re all a result of our influences, and I wanted to shed a light on that aspect of our lives through Janis’s life.”
What will be clear to theater-goers is the creative debt Joplin owed (and acknowledged) to a cluster of great African-American female artists. Singers Aurianna Angelique (Odetta and Bessie Smith), Ashley Támar Davis (Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone), Tawny Dolley (Etta James), and Jennifer Leigh Warren, as an unnamed blues singer, take turns in the spotlight to portray Joplin’s musical inspirations.
As a woman in the hyper-masculine world of late-’60s rock ’n’ roll, Joplin fought for every ounce of respect and influence that she ultimately achieved. She was also an outspoken anti-racist, and free with praise for the African-American musical giants who informed her style.
But as is the case with any white artist who reaches the height of pop success with a variation on historically black musical styles, her legacy on that point is complicated. The nostalgic view of the Baby Boomer Cultural-Industrial Complex, perhaps tinged by the reverence conferred upon artists who die too young, has tended to glance past the debates that were considered quite live in Joplin’s day.
A contemporaneous review in The New York Times harshly described one album as “a stereophonic minstrel show” — but as cultural scholar Jack Hamilton has argued, embedded in that critique may be a patronizing worldview in which black artistic achievement is understood as something rough and intrinsically “authentic” rather than the product of craft and skill. It is also evidence of how much the music business has changed since 1968, when it was more bracing to hear a white, middle-class woman so obviously indebted to the likes of Smith and Franklin.
‘I’m not trying to sound exactly like Janis Joplin. We’re just trying to bring her spirit back in the room through me as a vehicle, to capture her spirit and her musical legacy.’
Comic artist Robert Crumb’s famous cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s seminal album “Cheap Thrills” includes one panel that seems to posit her as a child of the blues by depicting her as a baby in the arms of a black woman who is rendered as a racist caricature. The illustration represents Joplin’s version of the much-loved standard “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” the opera in which white artists George and Ira Gershwin (and librettist DuBose Heyward) attempted to approximate rural African-American dialect.
So, yes, complicated.
For her part, Joplin once said: “I don’t sing black. I just sing. I don’t think I copy at all. And anyway no one has a monopoly on soul.”
“A Night With Janis Joplin” does not linger on the demons that haunted Joplin, like these debates over cultural appropriation or a self-destructive streak that included an infamous fondness for Southern Comfort in addition to her ultimately fatal heroin habit. Johnson says the show is conceived as a concert happening a week before her death, catching her in a self-reflective mood onstage. “We don’t put a shadow on anything, and we address everything, but it is a concert,” he says, adding that a performer wouldn’t dwell on such matters onstage.
Tasked with portraying a singer who has ascended to rock goddess status, and whose ragged and over-charged vocal style is quite distinct, McIntyre says she’s not attempting to pull off a strict impersonation. “I’m not trying to sound exactly like Janis Joplin. We’re just trying to bring her spirit back in the room through me as a vehicle, to capture her spirit and her musical legacy.”
All the time McIntyre has spent with Janis, so to speak, over the past three years has made an impression.
“She was very opinionated and outspoken and inspiring to women, in terms of helping people feel comfortable speaking their minds and being who they are, unapologetically. I take that to heart and try to run with that as much as I can in my own life.”
A Night With Janis Joplin
At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Jan. 19-20. Tickets $35-$85, 866-347-9738, www.bochcenter.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.