Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
One Night with Janis Joplin
Joplin (1943-1970) lived hard and full out, dying of a heroin overdose at age 27. The program quotes her as saying "If I hold back, I'm no good. I'd rather be good sometimes than holding back all the time." Davieswho also tours with Joplin's original band Big Brother and the Holding Companygives an electric performance, demonstrating how the performer borrowed influences from other singers and synthesized a new, utterly unique sound. (Her renditions of George and Ira Gershwin and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's "Summertime" and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "Little Girl Blue" bear little resemblance to the originals, but they vibrate with soul to the point where that doesn't matter.)
Creator, author, and director Randy Johnson worked with Joplin's surviving family to craft this tribute to a musical innovator and trailblazer who, four decades after her death, is still an inspiration. He treads lightly around the rougher edges of her character (no mention of drug abuse; only oblique references to her troubled history with men), but it's all there in the music, and the performance brings it all home.
Rather than being another in a series of "and then I sang" musical biographies, One Night with Janis Joplin presents the singer in her cultural and historical context. Janis grew up listening to Broadway cast albums, but her primary style influences were the great African-American blues and folk singers of the early and mid-20th century. Sabrina Elayne Carten gives examples from this history, taking on the sound of iconic personalities from Bessie Smith, through Odetta, to Nina Simone and, for a roof-shaking duet with Davies, Aretha Franklin.
Justin Townsend's scenic and lighting design incorporates homey touches (an armchair, for example) into the milieu of a rock concert stage with its jolts of colored light and blasts of sound from an eight-piece band. Some of the decisions are mystifying, however, such as the use of table lamps as accent pieces around the perimeter of the stage. Jeff Cone's costumes capture Joplin's customary style (dressing in layers, lots of jewelry) as well as the by turns serene and flashy outfits for the Blues Singer.