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.
Written and directed by Randy Johnson. Musical director, Len Rhodes; set and lighting, Justin Townsend; costumes, Jeff Cone; sound, Carl Casella. With Laura Carbonell, Alison Cusano, Shinnerrie Jackson. About two hours, 20 minutes. Through Nov. 4 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. For more information, visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.