Legendary blues and soul singer Janis Joplin was an astounding force of nature onstage and off. A new concert musical on Broadway provides a rockin' good time while imaginatively evoking her impassioned, thrilling talent.
Randy Johnson wrote and directed the tribute, "A Night With Janis Joplin." Featuring a powerful performance by Mary Bridget Davies as Joplin alongside a quartet of extremely talented singers, the loud, colorful, '60s-saturated spectacle opened Thursday night at the Lyceum Theatre.
Soulful and genuine, Davies gives a lively, energetic performance. She captures much of the exuberance and uniquely raspy wailing that made Joplin a musical legend, though she lacks Joplin's raw onstage sexuality and brash, raunchy persona. No stranger to the role, Davies has sung as Janis for years, including in this show regionally for the past year.
The onstage eight-member band, led by music director Ross Seligman as the sexy lead guitarist, performs hard-driving arrangements of Joplin hits including "Down on Me," ''Piece of My Heart," ''Mercedes Benz" and "Me and Bobby McGee." The musicians also invoke the spirit of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the funky, psychedelic electric blues-rock group that helped propel Joplin to stardom in 1967.
Johnson's book sentimentalizes Joplin, whitewashing her hard-drinking, drug-fueled lifestyle and focusing instead on her enthusiasm and passion for her music. Between numbers, Davies' Joplin muses extensively about the nature of the blues and blues music, and reminisces about growing up with her family in Texas.
More seminal to the show are the highlights she shares about her rise to fame and the music legends that influenced her, although her silent mouthing of their lyrics can be distracting. There's no mention of the accidental heroin overdose that killed Joplin at age 27.
Taprena Michelle Augustine, De'Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell and Nikki Kimbrough perform as backup singers "The Joplinaires." With grace and elegance, they also represent late 1950s "girl groups" and some iconic blues singers, dramatically performing parts of signature numbers by the likes of Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin on a platform above the stage.
In turn, Davies performs Joplin's earthier interpretations of these hits, showing how she made them her own, such as an invigorating "Tell Mama" (with Kimbrough stunning as Etta James) and a mournful, wailing, primal version of "Summertime."
With dynamic use of lighting, projections, sound design and the choreography of Patricia Wilcox, Johnson creates a high-caliber spectacle around the compelling story of a uniquely talented singer-songwriter who embodied her generation's passionate attitudes.
Stashed amid the dozens of table lamps on stage in the vibrantly performed “A Night With Janis Joplin” are two bottles of Southern Comfort.
The whisky, which gets gulped more than once, is the lone visual sign that the late-’60s queen of rock ’n’ roll had shadows in her life.
She had lots of them.
Joplin was bedeviled by lovers, fellow artists and, fatally, drugs. Little more than three years into her brief-but-brilliant career, Joplin OD’d on heroin — dead and gone at 27.
Expect none of that in this concert-style tribute, created in concert with Joplin’s estate.
It’s not about her vices. It’s about her voice.
Fortunately, powerhouse performer Mary Bridget Davies brings the vocals vividly to life. The husky rasp, pain-streaked shrieks and reckless, full-throttle abandon are all there. It’s a vocal-cord-shredding role. At some performances Kacee Clanton plays it.
Joplin blazes through “Piece of My Heart,” “Summertime,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz” and more classics. She’s supported by a kickass band and surrounded by psychodelic projections and rock-concert lights.
Davies bears a credible physical resemblance. (Then again, she also recalls Rachael Ray.) The Joplin vibe is all the more apparent thanks to hippie hair and groovy bell-bottoms and paisley tops.
“A Night” is the latest in an expanding roster of a popular brand of show: the Boomer Illusion Reunion. These nostalgia-centric shows put audiences in the company of artists of their youth. A certain willingness to see past the fog of fakery and go with the show increases the enjoyment level.
To his credit, writer and director Randy Johnson avoids the all too common “and then I ... ” structure to fill the gaps between songs.
Joplin drops tidbits about family and life, but she’s more interested in showcasing the black singers who influenced her and her song choices: Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Aretha Franklin (a terrific Allison Blackwell), Nina Simone and Odetta (De’Adre Aziza). Each supporting performer throws off bright sparks in a solo.
Where the script goes irritatingly wrong is Joplin’s near-lecturing on the blues.
“I got the blues because I don’t have my baby,” she says. “I got the blues because I don’t have the quarter for a bottle of wine, I got the blues because they won’t let me in that bar ...”
Enough. She brings up the blues so much that she wrings the color and potency out of the idea and has you seeing red.
Better to let the music do the talking.
Enough of these babyboomer-baiting tribute concerts trying to pass for Broadway musicals! Just months after the Beatles impersonators in “Let It Be” left town comes “A Night With Janis Joplin” — or more exactly, “A Night With Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin,” though that title wouldn’t sell many tickets.
Recent biomusicals “End of the Rainbow” (about Judy Garland) and “Lady Day” (Billie Holiday) reveled in their subjects’ ups and downs, but this estate-approved show mostly sticks to the music. The result is a power-piped but sanitized Joplin (Davies) who’d be perfectly at home on a cruise ship.
The musical is meant to be a gig in 1970, about a week before the singer’s death, at 27. A band of musicians in hippie garb backs her through a selection of hits and one curio: “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven,” which Jerry Ragovoy, author of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” had written for Joplin, but which she never had the chance to record.
Between songs, Joplin banters amiably and introduces some of her influences, performers like Nina Simone (the excellent De’Adre Aziza, from “Passing Strange”), Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell) and Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough). They each provide a bit of background about soul and the blues while giving Davies a break from her vocal-cord-shredding pyrotechnics.
The singer has spent most of her adult life as a Joplin impersonator, and even toured with the surviving members from Big Brother and the Holding Company, one of the late star’s bands. She’s good at what she does.
But Broadway can never reciprocate the intensity and immediacy of a rock show. What it does best is put things in context. Exhibit A: “Jersey Boys.”
Sadly, we don’t learn much about what made Joplin who she was.
“All my life I just wanted to be a beatnik,” she says. “Meet all the heavies, get stoned, get laid, have a good time.”
If you want to know why Joplin screamed like a woman possessed, look elsewhere.
Writer-director Randy Johnson has her ramble on about the blues, but in the most banal way.
“I got the blues because I don’t have the quarter for a bottle of wine,” Joplin says. “I got the blues because they won’t let me in that bar.”
In real life, things were more complicated. Maybe Joplin got the blues because she was a woman in the misogynistic world of rock ’n’ roll. Or maybe because she grew up with an artistic temperament in 1960s Texas, surrounded by rednecks who voted her “ugliest man on campus.”
Think about that when “Ball and Chain” explodes in a torrent of agonized shrieks and howls.
The party onstage at the Lyceum Theater, where “A Night With Janis Joplin” opened on Thursday night, turns out to be more crowded than you might expect. This latest in Broadway’s endless stream of boomer-bait musical tributes isn’t just a matter of a big-voiced singer, her backup band and a bottle of Southern Comfort.
Mary Bridget Davies, whose positively uncanny vocal impersonation of Joplin keeps the house rocking for much of the show’s running time, is joined by a quartet of talented performers playing famous singers who influenced her style, from Bessie Smith to Odetta to Nina Simone to Etta James. Oh, and let’s not forget the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, who blazes onstage sporting more feathers than the titular star — no small achievement, given Joplin’s fondness for them.
Perhaps odder still, there are, in a sense, not one but two Janis Joplins present in this celebration of a woman who lived hard and died young. One is the soulful singer who poured her heart, guts and loins into her vocal cords every time she stepped onstage, howling forth her own distinctive blend of rock ’n’ roll and the blues. The other Janis is a friendly and unexpectedly even-tempered young woman from Port Arthur, Tex., who offers us an amiable tour of her upbringing, along with thoughtful reflections about her musical idols.
Ms. Davies portrays both sides of Janis, I should add. And while she bears a notable physical resemblance to Joplin, and her speaking voice has the same whisper of a twang and down-home earthiness, I’m a little suspicious of that second character. If the real Joplin had the kind of sensible perspective on her life and career that she exhibits in this show — happily reminiscing about her youthful love of painting, or giving a learned docent tour of blues history — she would probably not have died of an overdose of heroin and alcohol at 27.
Instead — who knows? — she might even today be teaching music at a university, or croaking out jokes on late-night chat shows, or doting on grandchildren.
Still, if the Janis who waxes nostalgic while partaking sparingly of the bottle does not quite match our image of the fiercely needy, heedless young woman who sang and partied with reckless abandon, frankly, it’s a bit of a relief. The default setting of biographical shows about performers who lived loose and imploded early often borders on the ghoulish. “A Night With Janis Joplin,” written and directed by Randy Johnson, instead offers a straight-up evening of music, interspersed with anodyne reflections from Janis on life, love and why so many ladies sing the blues.
Of music, there is more than enough to fill a full PBS pledge-drive special. Ms. Davies rockets through at least a dozen of Joplin’s best-known songs, and sings them with a throbbing fervor that is often riveting. Her ability to match Joplin’s highly emotive style could probably give members of the audience who saw the real woman something close to a contact high — or maybe a nostalgia high is the better term.
When Ms. Davies is not tempestuously tossing her lightly frizzed hair as she sings “Cry Baby” or “Me and Bobby McGee” or “Ball and Chain,” she cedes the stage to the women portraying the black singers whose styles Joplin borrowed from to create her own potent brew. And so Allison Blackwell drifts along the upper layer of the two-tiered set (by Justin Townsend), performing “Summertime” in classical style, cuing Joplin’s highly personalized version of the same song. And De’Adre Aziza swans on to portray the folk singer Odetta, a powerful influence on many of the singer-songwriters who emerged along with Joplin in the 1960s, to perform “Down on Me,” followed once again by Joplin’s own version.
Bessie Smith, naturally, makes an appearance, portrayed by Taprena Michelle Augustine. Nikki Kimbrough plays Etta James, and Ms. Blackwell struts as Ms. Franklin.
Fine though these singers all are, their interpretations vary in fidelity to the originals. Ms. Davies, on the other hand, has captured the Joplin sound perfectly, and the show surges into high gear in the second act (though one would probably have been enough), as she churns through the gut-wrenching songs that made Joplin famous. She is backed by an eight-piece band, wigged and costumed to suggest the free love era in which this fantasy concert is taking place.
As the show draws to a close, Janis becomes less curatorial and a little more introspective. Mr. Johnson drops a few moderately portentous reflections into her casual patter, suggesting the dark fate that is just around the corner.
But the yearning that burns in her greatest songs — songs of men who don’t stay, and needs that won’t go away — really reaches us only through her music. All the talk about the blues in “A Night With Janis Joplin” — and Janis reverts to the subject with a consistency bordering on monomania — can’t really touch the heart of what it means to feel a cosmic loneliness that nothing can permanently assuage, which was essentially what drove Joplin to perform, and to self-destruct.
There remains a strange disjunction between the soul-baring singer and the woman calmly telling us that “the blues is just a good woman feelin’ bad,” or “the blues are a way out of where you are, and they can drag you to where you’re going,” or “it’s the want of something that gives you the blues, man.” The Janis we meet in “A Night With Janis Joplin” spends so much time talking about the blues, you begin to wonder when she had time to truly suffer them.
Well, so much for hopes about "A Night With Janis Joplin." Goodbye to a glimmer of faith that, just maybe, Broadway might restrain itself from flattening this formative rock outlaw into another cheese-ball tribute like the ones that mass-market the singularity of Elvis and The Beatles.
Although Joplin and her brief, raw, influential blues-rocker life had somehow evaded the clone industry, she has now entered the undead world of the body-snatched. Writer-director Randy Johnson and the siblings Joplin left behind in Port Arthur, Texas, have scrubbed her up and domesticated her into just another ordinary '60s chick who idolized black women blues singers, loved literature, sang loud and died fast.
But Joplin created herself in a day when stylists and packagers didn't decide how much belly button to show. She was the first person I saw -- or maybe just the first one I liked -- who didn't iron her frizzy hair. She was every overweight young woman with a complexion problem who acted tough in high school to grab the status denied her. But she was also an original who channeled the pain and defiance of great blues into white-girl rock and into a joyous assault against everything our parents said was glamorous.
Mary Bridget Davies has the lungs, the notes and the screaming moan in the back of the throat to suggest the real thing in "Cry Baby," "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Ball and Chain." But the actress, who also toured in a different Janis revue, is too externalized (and badly costumed) to touch the layers of vulnerability, much less the brazen sexuality that helped galvanize the adventures of a generation.
This show does not merely acknowledge Joplin's debt to black soul singers. Nor does it dwell on her death, in classic blues tradition, of heroin and Southern Comfort at 27 in 1970. Instead, "A Night With . . ." gives those women a third of her night. Excellent imitators of Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Odetta get to sing their own songs, lots of them, while Janis gazes admiringly at them from a chair on a set that inexplicably looks like a lamp store with a band in it.
We never hear about such career turning points as the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, sex or drugs in Haight-Ashbury or her split with Big Brother and the Holding Company. We do, however, see pictures from the family album. She deserves better. And so do we.
Early in A Night With Janis Joplin (* * 1/2 out of four stars), the titular heroine lists a few of her own role models -- Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone -- and admits, "I don't think I sing like them. I think I sound like a white chick singing the blues."
What the blues are, exactly, is a preoccupying concern in this musical tribute, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre. They can be, Joplin tells us at different points, "a good woman feelin' bad," or "the want of something," or occasionally "the devil himself."
Speaking these lines, Mary Bridget Davies, who plays the late '60s rock goddess, is utterly credible as a hippie icon, from her alternately blissed-out and earnest vibe to her groovy period costumes (the latter provided by designer Amy Clark).
Yet under the direction of Randy Johnson, who also wrote the book, Night offers a distinctly post-American Idol version of the blues. Davies is accompanied on stage by a band and four other spectacularly gifted female vocalists, who alternate as the backing "Joplinaires" and various artists whose work inspired Joplin's; and the fireworks they provide can border perilously on crowd-pleasing caricature.
In fairness, subtlety was never one of Joplin's virtues. A penchant for excess in life and art are central to the legend of this star that burned out at just 27; and Davies -- whose robust, gravelly singing uncannily evokes Joplin's -- both captures that bombast and mitigates it with an endearingly awkward sweetness. If her renditions of classics such as Piece Of My Heart and Ball and Chain are predictably, and authentically, over the top, the actress also brings palpable vulnerability and humility to Joplin's (often hokey) accounts of her youth, passion and loneliness.
Her co-stars have less opportunity to inject nuance into their performances. It's impossible not to marvel at the pure prowess of these singers -- among them Allison Blackwell, who veers from a stunning operatic reading of Summertime (also sung by Davies, copying Joplin's blues-rock cover) to a shivery, booming impersonation of Aretha Franklin; and De'Adre Aziza, whose earthier alto accommodates a folksy Odetta and a stately Simone.
But several numbers devolve into showboating. As a "Blues Singer," the tangy-voiced Taprena Michelle Augustine -- also a piquant Smith -- gets so melisma-drunk that the melody of Today I Sing The Blues is nearly obscured. Later, Spirit in the Dark is presented as a duet -- or a shouting match, more accurately -- between Blackwell's Franklin and Davies' Joplin.
At a recent preview, these numbers were among several that whipped the crowd into a happy frenzy. Indeed, those who believe that no note can be sung too loudly, or with too much melodrama, will find much to love in A Night With Janis Joplin.
The rest of us can at least admire the talent being displayed, exhaustively, before trudging home.
As a musical biography, “A Night With Janis Joplin” is pretty much a bust. The book by Randy Johnson, who also helmed, skims lightly over the singer’s Texas childhood and her tenure with Big Brother and the Holding Company, with nary a word about her personal life or the booze and drugs that cut it short. But as a concert in which those great ladies of song who were Joplin’s musical inspiration join her on stage, the show is something else — a celebration of the blues and those beautiful bruises they leave on the singer’s soul.
If Mary Bridget Davies says it once, she says it and sings it a hundred times in her ecstatic star turn: Janis Joplin loves the blues. And if you should somehow miss the message, it’s repeated with a visual flair in the luxurious deep blue velvet curtain (with a fringe!) and Justin Townsend’s blue-on-blue lighting scheme, dramatically realized in radiating neon bars and spotlight cones.
And why does Joplin love the blues, exactly? What act of cruelty cut her to the bone, and who was it who hurt her so bad? Better not ask, because there’s not a hint of personal data in the show’s book to enlighten us on that rather critical point. Better just take it on faith from Davies, who looks like Joplin, sings like Joplin, howls like Joplin and has been touring the country in a show and a role-of-a-lifetime that she owns.
It’s not only an amazing perf, it’s also a generous one. It had better be, because the four women sharing the stage with Davies are delivering death-defying performances.
Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, and Nikki Kimbrough sing in flawless tight harmony as members of the girl group Chantels and as Joplin’s own backup singers, the Joplinaires. But some of the most electrifying moments are call-and-response numbers in which they interact with Davies on the signature songs that inspired Joplin.
Nikki Kimbrough’s sexy, sassy Etta James gets Davies going on “Tell Mama.” Allison Blackwell (who also brings the house down as Aretha Franklin) offers up a spine-chilling “Summertime” that causes Davies to explode with Joplin’s own version. De’Adre Aziza’s soulful rendering of Odetta’s “Down on Me” inspires an in-kind response from Joplin.
Sometimes the inspiration is more subtle, as with the mournful “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” delivered by Taprena Michelle Augustine’s suffering Bessie Smith. Amy Clark’s gorgeous confection of a 1920s fancy-dress costume gives Bessie more dignity than her personal managers. All the period outfits, for that matter, are meticulously matched to the individual singers, including the plain, but progressively fancy and fancier versions of Joplin’s funky bell bottoms and schmatta tops.
Helmer-scribe Johnson is smart enough not to run these musical pairings into the ground. Except for dozens of mismatched table lamps scattered about (a mysterious design message, that one), the stage is always nice and clear when it’s time for Davies to hurl herself, body and soul, into one of Joplin’s signature shout-the-house-down songs like ”Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Mercedes Benz,” which brings the audience to its feet at the end of the show.
As a concert, the well-wrought production should satisfy any rabid fan of Joplin’s musical brand of the blues. But for anyone expecting an honest portrait of Janis — or of the hedonistic Sixties era she personified — you can just cry, cry baby.