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A CurtainUp Review
A Night with Janis Joplin

"Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for one great broad — JANIS JOPLIN!"— Guitar Player
Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The flashing lights and the crisscrossing lazar beams that streak around the Lyceum Theatre are meant to dazzle as well as blind the audience. It's all in anticipation of Mary Bridget Davies's entrance as Janis Joplin, the legendary "queen of rock n' roll" whose life was tragically ended at the age of twenty-seven by an overdose of drugs.

The good news is that Davies is sensational and transcends the obligatory razzle-dazzle. The applause, screams, shouts and whistles that welcome the singer will be heard again and again during this searing biographical concert, earnestly written and smartly directed by Randy Johnson.

Asit turns out, it is more than a night with just Davies as Joplin. She has some extraordinary support from four super singers — Taprena Michelle Augustine, De'Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, Nikki Kimbrough. Billed as The Joplinaires they not only do back up but also get their own individual spotlight to evoke such late great ladies of jazz as Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Etta James, The Chantels and a Blues Singer.

The Joplinaires are gorgeously gowned by costume designer Amy Clark. In contrast, Davies keeps it cool and comfortable throughout in various versions of embroidered jeans and the musicall influences behind Joplin's style that add something very special to this show. A Blues Woman rapturously sings the operatic aria "Summertime" only to be effectively followed with Joplin's own famously deconstructed version.

Aziza brings Odetta to life with "Down On Me." Augustine channels Bessie Smith with "Nobody Knows When You Are Down and Out," and the Joplinaires have The Chantels down pat with "Maybe." I was particularly disarmed by the cleverly arranged duets between Joplin and Etta James and Nina Simone among other combinations of the singers that comprise a healthy portion of the show.

It is Joplin's repertoire of twenty-three songs, many of them recognizable as anthems such as "Cry Baby," "Piece of My Heart," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" that grasp the ecstasy and the agony that is always discernible in Davies' raspy but always resonant voice. At the center of this production which is presumably set during a road gig for Joplin and her band, is the predominantly up-beat narrative that is threaded between her songs. Joplin also finds the right spots for some swift swigs straight from the bottle. This back story also brings those who know and those who don't know back to the Joplin's roots, as family photographs, paintings and drawings are projected. The narrative, however, leaves out any indications of her addiction, or any of the demons that took possession of her personality.

Many fans will undoubtedly recall Love, Janis ( Curtainup review), a fine, but less gussied-up homage to Joplin that played Off Broadway in 2001. In that production three singers alternated the title role. Two singers will alternate for this new homage which has already played a number of regional houses.

My review is based on the performance by Davies (who incidentally played Joplin in the touring production of Love, Janis). Kacee Clanton, the alternate Joplin received glowing notices during out-of-town engagements and will portray Joplin "at certain performances." Having an alternate is certainly understandable considering the demanding, hell-fired vocals that define Joplin's style.

This show will undoubtedly bring back memories of the full flowering of rock n' roll during the psychedelic 1960s and one of its most iconic definers. It will also be appreciated by those with an interest in the history of jazz and its complicity in the evolution of rock. Ultimately A Night With Janis Joplin brings the ill-fated Joplin's musical legacy and her adoration of jazz into sharp focus. She was a woman in awe of the jazz-blues genre that was to be her inspiration, as she tells us, "After all, the blues is just a good woman feelin' bad."

Afterthought: I wonder if those who see Davies as Joplin won't see just a glimmer of Bette Midler when she played a fictional character inspired by Joplin in the film The Rose. Davies is no imitator as anyone can see, but she perfectly embeds into the songs the impassioned intensity that marked Joplin. If marketed smartly, A Night with Janis Joplincould conceivably have broad-based appeal for a long run, although a better title might be The Divine Joplin with Divas of the Blues

A Night with Janis Joplin
Written and Directed by Randy Johnson

Cast: Mary Bridget Davies (Kacee Clanton, as certain performances) Janis Joplin, Taprena Michelle Augustine, De'Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, Nikki Kimbrough (The Joplinaires, featured as The Chantels, Bessie Smith, Bue Singer, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, Etta James)
Scenic and Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Costume Design: Amy Clark
Sound Design: Carl Casella
Projection Design: Darrel Maloney
Choreography: Patricia Wilcox
Music Director & Conductor: Ross Seligman
Original Music Arranger & Director: Len Rhodes
Music Coordinator: Howard Joines
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street
Tickets: $49.00 - $140.00 ($30.00 rush tickets on day of performance only)
Performances: WEEK OF OPENING*: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. There will only be seven performances on sale to the general public this week. MONDAY, OCTOBER 14 - SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27: Tuesday through Thursday at 7 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees on Wednesday, and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM. MONDAY, OCTOBER 28 - SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 3: Monday through Wednesday at 7 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM. REGULAR PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE (STARTING MONDAY, NOVEMBER 4): Tuesday through Thursday at 7 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
From 09/20/13 Opened 10/10/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/05/13.
Musical Numbers
Set One
  • "Combination of the Two Joplinaires and the Band
  • "Tell Mama"Janis Joplin, Etta James and the Joplinaires
  • "My Baby" Janis Joplin and the Band
  • "Maybe" The Chantels
  • "Summertime" Blues Woman
  • "Summertime" Janis Joplin
  • "Turtle Blues" Janis Joplin
  • "Down on Me" Odetta
  • "Down on Me" Janis Joplin
  • "Piece of My Heart" .. Janis Joplin and Joplinaires
  • "Today I Sing the Blues" Blues Singer
  • "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" Bessie Smith
  • "A Woman Left Lonely" Janis Joplin
  • "Spirit in the Dark" Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Joplinaires
Set Two
  • "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" Janis Joplin and the Band
  • "Maybe" Janis Joplin and the Band
  • "Little Girl Blue" Janis Joplin and Nina Simone
  • "Cry Baby" ‚ĶJanis Joplin
  • "Kozmic Blues/I Shall Be Released Medley" Blues Woman, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Etta James
  • "Me and Bobby McGee"Janis Joplin
  • "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven" Janis Joplin and the Band
  • "Ball and Chain" Janis Joplin
  • "Kozmic Blues" Janis Joplin
  • "Stay with Me" Janis Joplin and Joplinaires
  • "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven" Janis Joplin, Joplinaires and the Band
  • "Mercedes Benz" Janis Joplin
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