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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

One Night with Janis Joplin

One Night
Mary Bridget Davies
Sometimes a theatrical performance bears a strong resemblance to a religious experience. A prime example is the current production in the Kreeger Theater at Washington's Arena Stage, One Night with Janis Joplin: an immersive and ecstatic event anchored by the galvanizing performance of Mary Bridget Davies as the blues-rock legend. While people who grew up with Joplin's songs may join in on "Piece of My Heart" or "Me and Bobby McGee," the wave of awe and power from the stage engulfs the entire audience.

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." Davies—who also tours with Joplin's original band Big Brother and the Holding Company—gives 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.

Arena Stage
One Night with Janis Joplin
September 18th - November 4th
Created, written, and directed by Randy Johnson
Janis Joplin: Mary Bridget Davies
Blues Singer: Sabrina Elayne Carten
Backup Singer/Janis Joplin Understudy: Laura Carbonell
Backup Singer/Janis Joplin Alternate (Wednesday and Saturday matinees, Sunday evenings): Alison Cusano
Backup Singer/Blues Singer Understudy: Shinnerrie Jackson
Musical director and music arranger: Len Rhodes
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo: Janet Macoska


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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