BWW Reviews: ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN Sings With Heart and Soul at Arena Stage
Arena Stage is the place where a goddess of rock and roll has seen fit to make a return visit.
Thank you, Arena Stage.
One Night with Janis Joplin, skillfully created and directed by Randy Johnson, is a living, breathing collage of musical theatre melded with reunion concert where the late Janis Joplin is front and center. Performer Mary Bridget Davies was born to play Janis Joplin and Johnson has given her the perfect vehicle for her talents.
The experience of One Night with Janis Joplin is deceptively simple: Complete with a kick-ass band and back-up singers, Joplin arrives to perform a no-holds-barred concert. The show gets personal when Janis takes the time to relate bits of her life, while sharing her many musical influences. I kept thinking of it as the lost living room tour Janis never got to perform.
Have no fear, this Janis and her band can rock out like nobody’s business, offering a full-tilt boogie blast of her greatest hits. “Piece of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder),” “Turtle Blues,” and “Down on Me” are just a few of the signature tunes. So is Joplin’s unique take on George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime” and even a sing-along version of “Mercedes Benz.”
Fans of Joplin who attend this show might swear she really didn’t die at age 27 and has stopped by for a quick redo, to remind them of her soulful and raw vocal stylings.
Beyond the music, moments of honesty and plain talk set One Night with Janis Joplin apart from a standard juke-box musical. The music may touch your soul, but Janis will touch your heart when she addresses the audience like an old friend, talking about her family, and the foundations of her music.
As Janis recalls listening to artists like Bessie Smith, Odetta, and even her contemporary Aretha Franklin, these women of song are personified by the Blues Singer. Like a soulful muse, Blues Singer not only sings a retrospective of great songs, she is Janis' musical conscience.
The first half of One Night concludes with a speculative meeting of Janis and Aretha and a performance of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” which is a roof- raising highlight of a show filled with powerhouse vocals, a perfect band and engaging visuals.
Along with the roof of the Kreeger Theater, goose-bumps are raised numerous times throughout the performances, courtesy of Janis Joplin, her influential Blues Singer and the other musicians who take the stage in the two hour and thirty minute production.
Mary Bridget Davies is obviously a gifted singer in her own right. She wails, she purrs, she growls - all with a voice that seems to emanate from somewhere south of her soul. Performing as Janis, she is transcendent. She also excels in the intimate moments when Janis just talks to the audience. Her goofiness and honesty are endearing and we feel as if we have glimpsed a piece of her heart.
It is significant to note Davies tours with Janis’ original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. She also played the singer onstage in Love, Janis, a play written by Janis’ sister Laura. Hollywood has bandied about the idea of a Janis Joplin biopic in the last few years. If this ever really happens, Mary Bridget Davies should get the first call.
Sabrina Elayne Carten is Blues Singer. She is a musical chameleon, taking on a variety of styles and making each one sound as authentic as the other. Her soaring vocals are showcased when she sings as Etta James, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Joplin’s other vocal idols.
Providing strong backup to Davies and Carten, are Laura Carbonell, Alison Cusano, and Shinnerrie Jackson. Not simply doo-wop girls, Cusano is the alternate for Janis Joplin; Carbonell is the understudy. Jackson is the understudy for Carten.
The backbone of One Night with Janis Joplin is the band. Stephen Flakus plays guitar and is the associate musical director. Band mates include Guitarist Ross Seligman, and bassist Patrick Harry. Tyler Evans plays keyboards, and Mitch Wilson is the drummer. David Milne takes care of the saxophone, while Gavriel de Tarr and Anton van Oosbree. If these guys decide to form a band outside of the Janis Joplin show, buy a ticket. In the meantime, don’t miss them blowing the roof off of the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage.
Director and creator Randy Johnson gets credit for working closely with the Joplin estate to craft a loving and entertaining musical portrait of the awkward girl from Texas who burst on the musical scene during the turbulent 60s and forged her own way. Johnson clearly has an affection for his subject matter.
Len Rhodes (music director), Justin Townsend (set and lighting design), Jeff Cone (costumes), Carl Casella (sound design) and the evocative projection design by Darrel Maloney have served the show with craftsmanship and skill.
Janis Joplin herself may have died tragically in 1970, but thanks to this production, her story has the chance to move audiences once again and bring her music to fans and a new generation of listeners. One Night with Janis Joplin offers a glimpse of a truly unique artist who took a fearless approach to music and made her own way during turbulent times.
ONE NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin: Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson. Continues through November 4, 2012. Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Address: 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC. Box office: 202.488.3300
(L to R) Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin and Sabrina Elayne Carten as Blues Singer in the Cleveland Play House production of One Night with Janis Joplin written and directed by Randy Johnson, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through November 4, 2012. Photo by Janet Macoska.
Photo Credit: Janet Macoska (Cleveland Play House production)