Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 10, 2013
A Night With Janis Joplin Presented in association with The Estate of Janis Joplin and Jeffrey Jampol for JAM, Inc. Written and directed by Randy Johnson. Choreography by Patricia Wilcox. Scenic & lighting design by Justin Townsend. Costume design by Amy Clark. Sound design by Carl Casella. Projection design by Darrel Maloney. Hair & make-up design by Leah J. Loukas. Cast: Mary Bridget Davies, Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, Nikki Kimbrough, Alison Cusano, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Kacee Clanton.
The most surprising thing — okay, the only surprising thing — about A Night With Janis Joplin, which just opened at the Lyceum, is how (relatively) little Janis Joplin there is in it. Though Mary Bridget Davies is on hand to play the acclaimed rocker (and thrillingly, I might add), she ends up yielding the spotlight to her backup singers more often than you might expect.
In fairness, though the four women cast as the “Joplinaires” — Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, and Nikki Kimbrough — are gifted performers in their own right, they score most memorably when they’re playing the collection of blues legends springing forth from the imagination Janis reverently insists they inspired. Davies can obviously hold her own, but Joplin herself has trouble matching the wattage of the likes of Aretha Franklin (Blackwell), Etta James (Kimbrough), Nina Simone (Aziza), and Bessie Smith (Augustine).
When those women — or, for that matter, an anonymous “Blues Singer” (Augustine again) — let loose, you’re pulled into the realm of classical, enduring greatness that Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at age 27, only had time to skirt. It doesn’t help that writer-director Randy Johnson and choreographer Patricia Wilcox always seem more inspired when dealing with “Today I Sing the Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “I Shall Be Released,” Simone’s spin on “Little Girl Blue,” or the Joplin-Franklin duet “Spirit in the Dark” that puts an explosive cap on Act I.
Forcing Davies to tilt against ghosts of this caliber, especially when she’s also already up against Joplin’s, gives things an uneven feel that’s exacerbated by the usual structural issues that crop up with shows of this nature. Johnson’s splitting up some songs and delivering only tempting fragments of others may qualify as “creative,” but it pays few genuine dividends; and though he’s avoided excessive mawkish sentimentality, Joplin’s patter barely counts as dialogue, and it sounds as though it was drawn from many of the same letters and official sources as the similar 2001 retrospective, Love, Janis.
A determined nag could come up with other objections as well — the set (by Justin Townsend, who also did the lights) is a distractingly eclectic living room–meets–stadium affair, and the band (led by musical director Ross Seligman; the sound design is by Carl Casella) tends to overwhelm the vocals — but when you’re in the theater, it doesn’t take you long to let go of them all once Davies starts sizzling.
It can’t be easy to latch onto the dueling aspects of Joplin’s personality, but Davies does it with grace and charm. She’s utterly believable as a concentrated dynamo wrapped in a deceptively dreaming package, true: the star who knows she has to be one, because no man has ever made her feel the way an audience does, but who inside wants to maintain her shy individuality. But you can see through it all the Texas-born girl who was her own brand of chic, and embodied for a generation the razor-edged appeal of Haight-Ashbury casual.
Even as costumed by Amy Clark, Davies doesn’t look a lot like Joplin — she’s noticeably stockier and her face reads more “sophisticated fun” than “free spirit.” But because Davies never lets her focus sag or her energy flag, I was thoroughly convinced that, in all the most important ways, she was Joplin from first song to last.
Davies ignites the first act with “Tell Mama” and “Maybe,” and stokes the flames in the second act with the likes of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and others before sliding into a sing-along “Mercedes Benz” finale. Aside from the aforementioned “Spirit in the Dark,” which is really just for fun, my favorites were Davies’s solo version of “Kozmic Blues,” her fierce “Ball and Chain,” and particularly “Piece of My Heart,” which captured both the song’s rage and longing in what struck me as the evening’s most on-point evocation of Joplin’s take-no-prisoners, devil-may-care approach.
So fine is Davies, in fact, that I found myself wishing Johnson would simply let her take and keep center stage the way vehicles of this nature usually do. I wanted to be persuaded that Joplin belonged in the vaunted company she was keeping onstage, but all the other turns — however brilliant — prevented that. Davies has genuine headliner potential, and she deserves the chance to develop it and showcase it to its fullest extent. Perhaps she’ll one day get the chance? Until then, A Night With Janis Joplin is the best we’ll get. If it’s not as good as it should be, it’s more than good enough.