Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Night with Janis Joplin
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


Mary Bridget Davies and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
A Night with Janis Joplin is not quite a musical, not quite a concert. I think the word that best describes this show is a volcanic eruption of music and talent. The music is a mash-up of blues and rock, in Janis Joplin's inimitable whisky-throated style. The talent parade is led by a take-no-prisoners performance by Mary Bridget Davies as Joplin, a role Ms. Davies has owned since the show's origins in regional theater, her 2014 Tony-nominated performance on Broadway, and now in the national tour playing at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

The show is conceived as a 1969 vintage rock concert, with none of the massive stage effects and pyrotechnics found in today's rock phantasies. A hot eight-man rock band is set up along the back of the stage; a light-show of kaleidoscopic imagery projected above the band provides psychedelic atmosphere. A trio of back-up singers (dubbed "the Joplinaires" in the program) sashay in, singing the Joplin classic "Combination of the Two." Then, the reason we are here: Janis Joplin enters from a catwalk perched over the band, delivering her fiery vocal and her highly charged, let-it-all-out dance moves. Of course, it is not Joplin herself, but Ms. Davies has the voice and moves to make us wonder if the real thing had returned to us.

Davis conveys not only the voice and the moves, but Joplin's blend of exhibitionism and deep insecurity. As she speaks to us between numbers it is both confessional and invitation to party. In those scripted bridges between songs, she shares insights into Janis' background, her journey from her birth in Port Arthur, Texas, to the pinnacle of blues rock in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. A lot of her banter relates her affinity to the blues, what it means to have the blues, where they come from, and how singing helps her survive their grip on her spirit. Perhaps less of this and more of Joplin's biography would have provided some balance, though the focus on the blues gives us more insight into Joplin's internal life, as opposed to the flamboyance and lust she projected to outsiders.

Joplin also pays tribute to her songstress role models—Etta James, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and the girls singing group Chantel, as well as un-named blues singers. The Joplinaires take on costumes and mannerisms to portray those legendary singers, some more successfully than others. In the elaborate act one close, Aretha Franklin (played by Q Smith with the Queen of Soul's power, though not her nuance) is performing a concert of her own, and announces that Janis Joplin is backstage. She leads the audience in calling out for Janis to step out, leading to Joplin and Franklin joining forces in a frenetic "Spirit in the Dark." The contrast between the un-named blues singer's operatic "Summertime" and Joplin's drowning-in-her-gin rendition is striking, and the evolution from Odetta's (huskily sung by Cecily Daniels) spiritual folk-style "Down on Me" to Joplin's wailing rock version is quite splendid.

Less successful is Q. Smith's portrayal of Nina Simone, failing to capture Simone's haunted growl and sexuality, nor finding the heart in "Little Girl Blue," the Rodgers and Hart song Simone recorded and, here, shares with Joplin. The most powerful effect by Janis's idols comes midway through act two when Simone, Etta James (played by Tawny Dolley), Bessie Smith (Cecily Daniels), and a blues singer (Jennifer Leigh Warren) join forces singing Joplin's "Kozmic Blues," then transition Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." The combined force of those voices and the lyrical power of the song send shock waves throughout the Ordway's cavernous hall.

Speaking of the Ordway, and its 1,900 seat Music Hall, while having great acoustics and sight lines, it cannot be called an intimate space, in contrast to the 900 seat Lyceum Theatre where A Night with Janis Joplin played on Broadway. The economics of touring productions require large venues, but as potent as the show is in the large space, one can only imagine the impact and power the same material and actress provided in a more intimate house.

I have yet to mention many of Joplin's beloved songs: "Turtle Blues," "Maybe," "Piece of My Heart," "Ball of Chain," and of course, "Me and Bobby McGee." They're all there, and Davis gives them each a soulful, go-for-broke performance. She probably could have gone on with "Bobby McGee" for another ten minutes, and the audience would have kept on loving it.

Randy Johnson repeats his role from Broadway as director for this tour, and draws the focus throughout on the main event, Janis. He makes good use of the on-stage band, who are not only terrific instrumentalists, but take on the poses and posturing of high-profile rockers. Guitarists Adam Kornreich and Jakob Reinhardt smoothly join Davis's Joplin on vocals in a toned down presentation of "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven." Don't worry, an all-out rock version comes later in the show.

The lighting design by Mike Baldassari, projection design by Darrel Maloney and sound design by Ben Selke coalesce to create the feel of barely controlled chaos at a 1969 rock concert. Patricia Wilcox's choreography consists of synchronized moves by singing group members and the gyrations of hard rockers caught up in the thrall of their music.

Fans of Janis Joplin, or acid-rock-blues music in general, will be swept up in the heat of the show. Those less knowledgeable of that era but with an interest in both the sound and the heart that moved it, and those with a taste for out-of-this–world diva performances will also find A Night with Janis Joplin more than worthwhile. One caveat: a tolerance for music played at high volume will come in handy.

A Night with Janis Joplin continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through April 3, 2016. 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets from $111.00 - $37.00, $34.00 for Standing Room. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or go to Ordway.org. For more information on the tour, visit anightwithjanisjoplin.com.

Written and Directed by: Randy Johnson; Choreography: Patricia Wilcox; Musical Director: Mark Berman; Costume Design: Amy Clark; Lighting Design: Mike Baldassari; Projection Design: Darrel Maloney; Sound Design: Ben Selke; Wig and Hair Design: Leah Loukas; Production Stage Manager: Hethyr (Red) Verhoef; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Manager: Peter Will; Associate Director: Tyler Rhodes; General Manager: Jumpstart Entertainment; Presented in association with The Estate of Janis Joplin and Jeffrey Jampol for JAM, Inc.

Cast: Cecily Daniels (Joplinaire, Chantel, Odetta, Bessie Smith), Mary Bridget Davies (Janis Joplin), Tawny Dolly (Joplinaire, Chantel, Etta James), Q. Smith (Joplinaire, Blues Woman, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone), Jennifer Leigh Warren (Joplinaire, Chantel, Blues Singer).


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