One Night with Janis Joplin

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Editorial Review

At Arena, Janis Joplin in full ‘Cry’
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, October 9, 2012

If “One Night With Janis Joplin” glosses over some of our more sordid memories of a rock-and-roll legend silenced at 27 by a heroin overdose, the Arena Stage tribute show that has oldsters’ heads bobbing sure manages to generate a joyful ruckus.

It features not just one remarkable performance, that of Mary Bridget Davies, looking uncannily like Joplin and producing a version of the Joplin screech that starts somewhere around the singer’s ankles, wends its way up into the back of her throat and shoots off into the farthest reaches of Arena’s Kreeger Theater. The two-hour, 20-minute production also showcases the variety of vocal gifts of Sabrina Elayne Carten, who materializes as some of the blues greats Joplin here claims as inspirations: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James.

With such a patently glorious roll call, “One Night With Janis Joplin” certainly has the entertainment quotient stacked in its favor. And to a surprising level, this concert-as-theater, written and directed by Randy Johnson, achieves the exhilarating effect it desires. It’s a portrait, more than anything else, of a romance: a singer in love with the cleansing embrace of the crowd.

“No man has made me feel as good as an audience,” Davies declares, fully in charge of her environment, a stage realistically outfitted by the splendid set
and lighting designer Justin Townsend as a road-stop home for Joplin and her band -- and enveloped aptly in what might be termed a purple haze. The violet halo accommodates the sentimental picture conjured here, of a hard-living interpreter of blues and rock, found dead in a Hollywood hotel room in 1970, less than a month after the death of fellow psychedelic legend Jimi Hendrix.

In the annals of jukebox musicals -- and there have been enough of them to qualify for their own annals -- “One Night With Janis Joplin” is an entry both straightforward and sanitized. Like most such evenings, its success depends entirely on a trick, that we buy the illusion of corporeal truth. This one works because we do. Even if Davies seems in technical terms to be the better singer, she’s close enough in mannerism and vocal personality to allow audience members of a certain age quickly to set aside any skepticism and simply savor the songs -- including such hits from Joplin’s short but spectacular career as “Ball and Chain,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and, of course, “Piece of My Heart.”

The show neither transforms the star’s work, as Twyla Tharp did for Billy Joel’s songbook in “Movin’ Out,” nor assembles it into an engaging narrative, a la the “Jersey Boys” book for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It doesn’t go the warts-and-all route, either, and maybe the clichés are such that the omission is a relief: The only acknowledgment here of her drug and alcohol addictions is a bottle of hooch from which she takes a single swig during Act 1. (It isn’t even the first show based on Joplin’s career: “Love, Janis,” in which Davies also appeared, has been playing around the country for a decade.)

But it sure sounds good. The context is a concert out of Johnson’s imagination, one in which Joplin recounts growing up in Texas in the 1940s and ’50s, and the deep impact black women singing the blues made on her. Carten performs in the styles of these other greats, and some of the production’s most rewarding sequences occur as it segues from her role models’ performances of a song, such as Odetta’s rendition of “Down on Me,” to Joplin’s anguished, leave-blood-on-the-floor version.

Accompanied by an eight-piece band (all in shaggy Jesus ’dos) and a trio of backup singers (in “Hair”-era headbands and dashikis), Davies aims for Joplin’s raw emotionality, the sensation that she’s up there practically surrendering a lung for you. The style is a far cry from Garland or Piaf, but the effect is similar. How can you not be grateful for such melodic self-sacrifice?

The Kreeger is an ideal platform for the pseudo-concert, whose precise time remains vague; vaguer still is the awkward transition to an evening that suddenly seems to be headlined by Carten as Aretha Franklin, with Joplin appearing as a guest star for a dream duet, “Spirit in the Dark,” that serves as the Act 1 finale.

That audiences can be moved by such moments is not in question, certainly not on the evidence of the performance that I attended. During this song, a woman who’d been waving her arms showily to the music rose from the second row and danced her way onto the stage, past the stunned backup singers. She planted herself at center stage before a staffer emerged from the wings to coax her back to her seat. (No, she was not part of the show.)

Other, better-mannered patrons -- the majority of whom appeared to be old enough to have attended a concert by the real Joplin -- swayed and roared, and during Davies’s propulsive “Piece of My Heart,” tears ran down the cheek of a man to the right of me.

Nothing wrong with a blast from acid-laced pipes to remind you who you used to be.

PREVIEW: Rocking with Janis
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, September 28, 2012

Most of us weren’t lucky enough to see Janis Joplin wow the world at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, or tear through her set at Woodstock in ’69. And, yet, we know Janis. That ragged howl. That upbeat folksiness. The velvet pantsuits and boas and wild-child antics.

In some ways, actress Mary Bridget Davies is haunted by that Janis, the unforgettable chanteuse who made “Me and Bobby McGee” an anthem of the hippie generation.

“Janis was a trailblazer. She was otherworldly,” says Davies, who is portraying the singer in “One Night With Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage. “She had that iconic -- like Jimi Hendrix -- that god aura. They’re like prophets.”

To the audience, she must be Janis, not Mary Bridget, for 21 / 2 hours. “I want to give them everything they want,” Davies says.

Settled into a rehearsal space at Arena’s Southwest waterfront digs, where the show begins its run Friday after shows in Cleveland, Davies looks unmistakably like Joplin, with the same wavy brown locks, broad, toothy smile and smattering of hard-won furrows. The faint hint of a rasp in her voice, however, suggests something far more crucial: The actress could well be packing Joplin’s famous pipes.

That’s all the more important, because “One Night With Janis Joplin” is not a play, exactly. It’s best described as music with theatrical interludes. An onstage rock band and a trio of backup dancers re-create the feeling of being at one of Joplin’s sweaty, churning performances, in this case a fictional D.C. show in 1970. (A booming salvo, with Joplin belting out “Tell Mama,” kicks things off.)

“Strictly as a vocalist, in the technical sense, [she was] not the best singer,” Davies says of Joplin. But the rocker nonetheless secured a nod as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest singers of all time (she sits at No. 28, between, fittingly, country crooner Hank Williams and one of her idols, Nina Simone). Joplin’s strength, Davies says, was that she “was one of the most free voices, ever. She had no filter; whatever she was feeling came out. That honesty, that genuine-article factor, is a lot of the magnetism.”

Casting a singer who could play Joplin -- who, thanks to color television and Rolling Stone, is recognizable to millions more than ever saw her in the flesh -- was daunting. “You can’t do this part from a theater point of view,” says Randy Johnson, who wrote and directs “One Night With Janis Joplin.” “You have to do it from a rock-and-roll perspective, with theater training. You can’t do a musical-theater version of this part.”

At auditions in New York, a stream of women filtered in with the wrappings of Joplin, feathers and peace signs and bell-bottoms, but, Johnson says, “without any of the insides.” Then, he recalls, Davies walked in wearing a T-shirt and jeans. “She opened her mouth and all jaws dropped.”

The Cleveland-based Davies was, like Janis, a touring musician. She had played Joplin in 2006, in a similar biographical musical called “Love, Janis.” She didn’t falter at callbacks, when Johnson threw in an additional test: Seated next to him at the table, unannounced, was his pal Liza Minnelli.

“You should have seen the look on their faces,” he says. “They either rose up to the level, or they didn’t.”

Davies rose. “I was doing my monologue reading, and she laughed!” she recalls. “I just made Liza Minnelli laugh. It was surreal.”

Concert as theater is a singular art form that perhaps no one in the business understands like Johnson. He helped create a show called “Always Patsy Cline,” directed “Songs My Mother Taught Me: The Music of Judy Garland” and wrote, directed and choreographed “Conway Twitty: The Man, the Music and the Legend.” He also produced a touring virtual Elvis concert, mashing up an orchestra with a band and video clips of Elvis.

In doing the shows, Johnson says, “I learned so much about the craft of bio-theater” or, as he calls it, “rock-and-roll theater.” The lesson that resonated most: “People like to be in the fantasy of being in the presence of icons.” Done well, they are undeniably hot tickets for theaters. (Arena Stage has experienced audiences flocking to shows that evoke that “almost like being there” feeling. Its 2008 production of “Ella,” about the scat queen Ella Fitzgerald, played to sold-out houses.)

But to Johnson, Janis was personal. He can recall listening to her records at age 5. As he began to work on “One Night With Janis Joplin,” Joplin’s siblings, Michael and Laura, offered the Los Angeles-based producer and director decades’ worth of keepsakes that belonged to the 27-year-old star, who died of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles in 1970, at the height of her fame.

What Johnson found were handwritten notes about costumes, journals, notes to herself and a painting Joplin created as a child. But what affected him most was the debt she widely acknowledged to black blues singers, including Simone, Bessie Smith, Odetta and Etta James.

He decided that “One Night With Janis Joplin” would explore Joplin’s relationship to those influences through an onstage specter known only as “the Blues Singer,” who inhabits much of the first half of the show, in which Joplin cycles through her formative years.

Videos of Joplin’s interviews with Dick Cavett and performances are widely available, but Johnson says his modern Janis isn’t based on any of those. “I just knew who she was,” he says. “I connected with her deeply.

“The myth of Janis Joplin being this wild woman, I think that was 10 percent of her. I think the other 90 percent of her was that she was this really good person who simply told the truth.”