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Review: Davies a Knockout in A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN

The one hundred and ten year history of Broadway's Lyceum Theatre has seen nine musicals, a couple of plays with music and a few concert evenings grace its stage. But I doubt if the walls of the classic Beaux-Arts showplace have ever felt any vibrations like the powerful full-throated wails of soulful orgasmic psychodelia emoted from Mary Bridget Davies in the title role of A Night With Janis Joplin. Certainly not when Maurice chevalier or Michael Feinstein played the house.

Writer/director Randy Johnson's concert-style musical is not to be lumped in the same category with that trio of Beatles imitation concerts that have played Times Square or other such shows that rely solely on mimicry. The ambition is a little higher here, and while A Night With Janis Joplin has its flaws as drama, as a raucous, hyper-energized tribute to one of American music's great icons, it's a joyful explosion.

Fans will deduce that the show takes place very shortly before her 1970 death at age 27 from a heroin overdose when she introduces "I'm Gonna Rock My Way To Heaven," a number intended for her posthumously-released Pearl album, as a new song she'll be recording next week. ("Mercedes Benz," recorded three days before her death, serves as the encore.)

Backed by music director Ross Seligman's eight piece band, Davies expertly recreates Joplin's eclectic phrasing - from possessed shrieks to staccato darts to comforting purrs and raspy blues - through a collection of favorites, including "Me And Bobbie McGee," "Cry Baby," "Ball and Chain," "Piece of My Heart" and "Kozmic Blues." For showtune fans, there's "Summertime" and "Little Girl Blue," but don't expect her to sing the original Broadway arrangements.

But this is no parlor trick, as her emotional commitment to the material is so forceful and sincere that by the first act curtain you may find yourself less concerned with Janis Joplin and anxious to see more of A Night With Mary Bridget Davies.

A clever concept has her frequently joined by members of a talented quartet of women dubbed as "The Joplinaires" (A salute to Elvis Presley's Jordonaires?) who represent her biggest musical influences: Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell), Nina Simone (De'Adre Aziza), Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Odetta (Aziza) and The Chantels (Augustine, Aziza and Kimbrough). As an unnamed soprano, Blackwell sings a lovely traditional rendition of "Summertime" and Augustine, a slender woman, effectively mimics Bessie Smith's weight with a terrific "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out."

Between songs Davies' Joplin is an adorable, cherubic-faced gal sharing with the audience her preference for dive bars and gritty blues and bits of her life story through amusing patter. ("You know that a lot of people say the trouble with women is they don't think about what they say before they say it. That's the good thing about women, man. We sing our fucking insides out!")

The concert concept keeps her biography upbeat and cheery, with her middle class Texas upbringing and a college education making hers seem a charmed life. (She talks of her literary taste, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald and she identifies greatly with Zelda Fitzgerald.) There's little mention of troubles with her parents or of being treated as an outcast at her high school. She tells the audience that she embraces their love more than the love of any man, but Joplin was known to suffer from severe self-esteem issues from romantic rejection and believing herself to be ugly. And her attraction to alcohol and drugs is made to seem recreational and harmless, despite an awkward speech at the end where she talks about the possibility of dying young.

But A Night With Janis Joplin is about the good times, and there are plenty of them to be enjoyed in this rowdy and heartfelt celebration.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Mary Bridget Davies; Bottom: Taprena Michelle Augustine, De'Adre Aziza, Mary Bridget Davies, Allison Blackwell, Nikki Kimbrough.

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