Date: October 2, 2013
Shari on the Aisle Rating: **1/2
Lead Cast: Mary Bridget Davies (Janis Joplin), Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’ Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, Nikki Kimbrough.
Background: Before landing on Broadway, “A Night with Janis Joplin” toured as “One Night with Janis Joplin,” playing most recently at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The show was commissioned by Joplin’s estate. Mary Bridget Davies toured with the show and won a Best Actress Award by the Cleveland Critics Circle, a 2013 Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Musical (at Arena Stage), and a BroadwayWorld nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. The role of Janis Joplin is so vocally demanding that Kacee Clanton fills in for Davies at matinee performances. Written and directed by Randy Johnson.
Quick Take: “A Night with Janis Joplin” includes performances of many classic rock & roll tunes from the Joplin songbook, including “Tell Mama,” “Summertime,” “Down on Me,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Mercedes Benz.” It also includes performances by actresses portraying Joplin’s musical influences: Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, and the Chantels.
The Performance: If I were writing this review based solely on Act I, I would say the show, including Ms. Davies, lacked energy and immediacy. I felt removed from the performance, and Ms. Davies appeared to be holding back. Oddly, the only standout performances in Act I were supplied by Davies’ supporting cast, specifically Taprena Michelle Augustine as the Blues Singer and Allison Blackwell as Aretha Franklin.
Act II was a different story. Ms. Davies channeled Joplin’s deep-seated, visceral emotion, for a moving performance that brought the audience to its feet. Her performances of “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee” were stunning, nearly mimicking the intense feeling displayed by Joplin herself. The band, directed by Ross Seligman, was excellent throughout, and the guitar and bass work echoed the psychedelic sound on Joplin’s original recordings.
In Addition: I’m not a huge fan of the so-called “jukebox” musical, where performers mimic stars of days gone by, with commentaries about the star’s life and times sandwiched between songs. (I may be the only person who found the book of “Jersey Boys” insufferable). “A Night with Janis Joplin” wisely concentrates on paying tribute to Joplin’s musical inspirations, avoiding the sad tale of her descent into alcohol and drugs and ultimate death by overdose at the age of 27. (For some reason, there is no mention of her historic performances at Woodstock or the Monterey Pop Festival).
Trivia: Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970 at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, CA (43 years ago today, as I write this). Jimi Hendrix had died 16 days earlier, also at the age of 27. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Should you go? That depends on two things: how much you care about Janis Joplin, and where you sit in the theatre. Love Janis? Love the music? You’ll get your money’s worth. I should note that my companion and I sat in the poorly air conditioned mezzanine for Act I, then moved to the second row center of the Orchestra for Act II. Being closer to the performers definitely enhanced the feeling of immediacy for us.
The show is available on TKTS at 40% off. It is also intermittently listed on TDF’s Website, if you’re a member.
But if you don’t see it, that’s OK too. Go on YouTube and check out the real thing.