BWW Review: A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN Captivates at ZACH
ZACH patrons are currently being treated to a beautiful feast for the ears. Mary Bridget Davies, who brought us the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present in ZACH's recent perennial holiday crowd pleaser, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, is now performing her Tony nominated role as Janis Joplin right here in the A-Town. This is not LOVE, JANIS, the story of Janis Joplin as told through song and letters Janis sent to her family throughout her career. No, this is a high energy romp where we meet with the icons that inspired an icon. But isn't that the way a star is born?
This is a show perfect for those looking to enjoy Davies channeling Joplin in a setting void of the drama that made Joplin's life so tragic. This is a Janis without the dysfunctional behaviors, the Janis that promised to stop using the needle and, in an alternate universe, didn't relapse into drug abuse. This Janis shares with us in retrospect all the inspiration that fueled her desire to sing, with only a hint at the shadows that haunted her enough to feed an addiction. A NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin is a loving tribute confined to the music of Joplin, and the powerful female artists that came before her.
Joplin's backup are The Joplinaires (Nattalyee Randall, Tawny Dolley, Tricky Jones, and Imani Ani.) At first listen, they're quite the talent. Turns out they should be, as they also double as the aforementioned icons who help hold the narrative of this show together. They each give us pristine performances, but Dolley and Ani left a lasting impression on me. Among other notable numbers, in a frenzied first act finale, Randall and Davies come together to Raise the Roof with a revival like experience of Spirit in the Dark.
Lighting director Ryan J. O'Gara successfully scales down big concert lighting for the Topfer stage without losing any of the flair found in a rock concert, and sound designer Craig Brock corrals the music to suit the ears of the mostly baby boomer audience, many of whom sang along to much of the show the night I attended. Allen Robertson's music direction is clean and sharp, and this is important, since the band here is onstage with the performers throughout the show. They're quite talented musicians (I expected them to be introduced and each get a solo.)
ZACH never fails at giving us a slick show with high production values. Director Randy Johnson also helmed the production on Broadway and he makes no missteps with this version. He drives the pace of this show as if it were a high energy concert interspersed with an introduction for each song from the famous lead singer in the band. And that is what this is, rather than a musical with a narrative arc. And by that I mean, in this version of Janis's life, we're treated to an introspective adult rather than the reckless version of Janis who died from an overdose at 27 years old. Even with the barest of information about the show and Joplin's life, we might expect a deeper dive into what drives the painful experiences that make Janis so passionate about the blues she sings. But in this version she seems almost wholesome. And that is what Johnson, who also wrote the show, intended. This is a show that reflects the quite normal setting in which Joplin was raised, and the affirming experiences that helped shape her, rather than the tragic story we're all familiar with. Keep this in mind when you attend if you're expecting a foray into the usual painful story of one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. While you won't get that, you will get a great production with a stellar lead giving us an incredible voice that may be as close to the real thing as we can get. This is an experience of a smiling Janis, sharing stories and music about the joy that made it possible for all of us to experience her brilliant talent.
A NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin
by Randy Johnson, featuring recreations of Joplin's music
January 29 - May 08
Zach Topfer Theatre
Wed through Sunday
January 29th to March 8th
Tickets:(512) 476-0541 x1, zachtheatre.org
Run Time: One hour and 40 minutes
Photo Credit: Kirk Tuck