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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
A Night with Janis Joplin
By Evan Henerson
A Night with Janis Joplin, which has Davies taking us through Joplin's life and music, puts an audience in the room with Joplin's rebellious greatness and gives us full license to get up and groove along to the beat. Visitors to the Pasadena Playhouse are doing precisely that, just as they did back in 2013 during the pre-Broadway engagement of A Night… at the Playhouse.
The play created, written and directed by Randy Johnson in association with the late singer's estate is stronger musically than in its narrative. This is hardly surprising given that Davies's Joplin is explaining herself through those bluesy breakdowns far more eloquently than she could with words. But even with some 25 songs to fit in, Johnson's play gives Joplin plenty of time off-mic; and Davies, her kind eyes hidden behind a curtain of brown hair, does her best to invite us into Joplin's world. Through her we learn of Joplin's ties to her family, her desire to flee small town Texas, of the intense loneliness she feels, and of how the rush of a tuned-in audience can help fill up some of that emptiness.
As charismatic and personable as she is when the music is off ("my world just exploded, man"), Davies goes to an entirely different place when she sings. Tearing into those songs, she is dangerous and mesmerizing. A Night with Janis Joplin shrewdly brings in Joplin's musical influences by having performers enact iconic songstresses like Bessie Smith, Odetta, Etta James and Nina Simone and then having Joplin answer or riff on the same melody. Needless to say, "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess lands differently from the pipes of Blues Woman portrayer Jenelle Lynn Randall than it does from Davies's pipes.
Writer/director Johnson and his music director Tyler Evans (working from original music director Len Rhodes's arrangements) give every cast and band member ample opportunity to cut loose. Mid-show standing ovations were in abundant supply at the production's opening night.
Sharon Catherine Brown positively tears up "Today I sing the Blues," which is followed up by the "Queen of Rock n' Roll" Joplin duet-ing joyously with "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin (Yvette Cason) on "Spirit in the Dark." The uniting of Smith, Simone, James and Unnamed Blues Singer for "Kozmic Blues"is another showstopper.
Randall, Cason, Brown and Sylvia MacCalla all do expert double duty playing the aforementioned great ladies of song and the title character's backup Joplinaires. Indeed, since its premiere as One Night with Janis Joplin at Portland Center Stage in 2011 and in subsequent stops on Broadway and on tour, Johnson's Joplin show is introducing some hot new voices at every junction. Kacee Clanton, Davies's alternate on Broadway is back as well, performing two shows a week to give the leading lady a respite.
But, as well-structured and seamless as it is, make no mistake, A Night… is every bit Mary Bridget Davies's showcase. The lady will "take a piece" of a whole new legion of Joplin fans (or newbies) hearts for as long as she is around to fuel this rockin' engine.