BWW Reviews: ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN at Arena Stage is Stunning
Can you sing along with the song "Oh What a Night" from JERSEY BOYS with a different lyric?
"Oh what a night, back in June in 2013, listening to the Queen of Rock doing her scene....baby, baby what a night!"
I apologize to librettists everywhere but what a night it was seeing, experiencing, and just having a great old time as Artistic Director Molly Smith and Arena Stage in a brilliant move have brought back the huge hit ONE NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin for the summer. And what a summer for muscials. There's COMPANY at the Signature, BOOK OF MORMON about to convert theatergoers at the Kennedy Center, and now this incredible show which showcases the incredibly talented Mary Bridget Davies as the rock icon Janis Joplin. Just watching Davies alone would be reason enough to see this amazing production. Performing back-up vocals were the trio Alison Cusano, Shay Saint-Victor, and Kim Yarborough as the Joplinaires.
Then add the superb Sabrina Elayne Carten as "Blues Singer" who gets the enviable task of performing the role of "Bess" singing "Summertime" from PORGY AND BESS, as well as playing such Blues' singers as Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and her earthy rendition of Aretha Franklin, "The Queen of Soul" which brought down the house with "The Queen of Rock" at the end of Act I when the entire audience was on its feet clapping and dancing to "Spirit in the Dark" written by Franklin. If the show was over then, it would have been worth the price of admission. But, there was also an Act II.
As I entered the Kreeger Theatre, I was put in a good mood as the 1967 hit song by the Turtles "Happy Together" played over the sound system. One had to be impressed with the gorgeous set designed by Justin Townsend who also did a miraculous job also as Lighting Designer which featured red and green strob lights and gave the evening a psychedelic look. The stage was ringed by a lighTEd White cloud, half of a spiral staircase leading to a second level, over 22 lamps (which all worked), a shawl on the piano, a persian carpet under the microphone front and center and 6 guitars on the rear wall.
During Act I, we learn a little about Joplin's upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas. She loved the three women group "The Chantells" and wore out three copies of their 45 record.
Joplin's mother made Janis, her sister, Laura and brother Michael clean the house listening to Broadway show music. She knew all the lyrics to WEST SIDE STORY. Laura played Maria, Michael played Tony, and Janis sang the roles of Bernardo and Anita! MY FAIR LADY was another favorite. Another record she wore out was PORGY AND BESS. She sang "Summertime" all the time. She commented, "My mother taught me to sing, to understand and sing the blues."
Her many jobs as a youth included working at a toy store, drive-in theater, and a bowling alley.
Her life changed when she worked at a coffee house where not only was she allowed to sell some of her art, but was allowed to sing some of her own music.
Joplin loved art and was thrilled to discover the library where she fell in love with Rembrandt, Modigliani, and African art. (I was reminded me of the musical MATILDA where the library was a key part of that young girl's life.)
She sang some songs (like Woody Guthrie) in Austin, Texas at a club called Threadgill's which was also a gas station.
Then she was taken by a young man to San Francisco to join the band "Big Brother and the Holding Company". This was the first time she heard electric music.
One of the most clever moments of the evening was when Carten sang as the folk singer Odetta the song "Down on Me" and then Joplin sang the same song but the "rock" version.