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NEW YORK – Mary Bridget Davies screeches up a storm as Janis Joplin. When she throws her formidable lungpower and raspy emotional rawness into “Piece of My Heart,” you could swear the tragic supernova known to her friends as “Pearl” had been reborn. But if you’re after a contextualized bio-musical to provide insight into rock’s first undisputed queen, writer-director Randy Johnson’s sanitized concert tribute, A Night With Janis Joplin, is not the place to look.
Coming to New York after successfully touring a number of regional stops, the show continues the transformation of Broadway into one giant industrial Baby Boomer karaoke machine. That trend has been around since Beatles and Elvis tributes started appearing more than three decades ago. But in the wake of Jersey Boys, which legitimized the jukebox musical with its toe-tapping back-story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the floodgates have been opened. This year alone has seen another Fab Four anthology, Let It Be, plus The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream and Motown: The Musical, with the Carole King bio, Beautiful, still to come in January.
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Actually, the title A Night With Janis Joplin is somewhat misleading. Joplin spends half the time ceding the spotlight to her inspirations, from late-‘50s girl group the Chantels through Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell), in a crowd-pleasing but ill-judged funk-gospel digression that threatens to hijack the show. There’s also an unnamed figure whose job is to hammer home that the blues is a woman thang, a message received in about a hundred minor permutations.
The show is structured as an imaginary Joplin concert, around the time her fame crested. The stage is littered by designer Justin Townsend with lamps of every size and shape, in amongst a crunchy band of eight musicians and three soulful backup singers. A backlit rear wall serves to splash projections that range from childhood photographs to random psychedelics; an upper deck allows for star entrances both by Joplin and her ghostly idols; and the throbbing lighting evokes the hard-pumping energy of an old-school live rock ’n’ roll show. In terms of the physical production, the show has a time-capsule authenticity.
What feels more artificial is the tidily retrospective mood of the protagonist. Like a Biography Channel narrator who drops an occasional F-bomb, Janis walks us through her musical influences, stepping aside to let Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augustine), Odetta and Nina Simone (both played by De’Adre Aziza) all take a turn or two at the microphone. The supporting cast members are talented vocalists, but their focus-pulling appearances have started to feel like padding well before they assemble onstage for a caterwauling rendition of “I Shall Be Released,” which turns the show momentarily into a VH1 Divas special.
In the overwritten patter for Joplin that links the songs, Johnson appears to be aiming to tap the collective spirit of oppressed womanhood thirsting for liberation across the decades. But that theme is expressed too mechanically to resonate, and great as she is on the vocals, Davies is not a good enough actor to smooth out the script’s many clunky transitions.
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The repeated emphasis on Joplin’s deep debt to the blues gets boring. It feels like we get this instead of an honest take on the woman behind rock’s first female superstar. Between songs, Janis recaps her Texas upbringing; her outsider status in school; her time with Big Brother and the Holding Company (but not her split from them); and her rapturous discovery of the reciprocal relationship between a performer and her audience, a high she says was never equaled in her offstage romances.
That contradiction between public adoration and private solitude injects a fragile note toward the end of the show. But qualities that anyone who ever skimmed a biography or watched a documentary about Joplin might associate with her – the insecurity, the neediness, the vulnerability – are underexplored in Johnson’s by-the-numbers script. The same goes for her symbolic importance as an empowering expression of female strength and sexuality.
The show is presented with the support of Joplin’s estate, and recollections of her brother and sister have been incorporated into the writing. But considering the full-throttle commitment with which Davies throws herself into the part, as a portrait it remains sketchy.
She talks about her hard-partying hedonism, but a couple of polite swigs from a Southern Comfort bottle do little to alter a depiction that’s in every sense too sober. Barely an allusion is made to Joplin’s drug use, and while that’s probably preferable to the grotesquely disrespectful sideshow of the recent Judy Garland bio-play, End of the Rainbow, it nonetheless seems like whitewashing. With minimal foreshadowing of Joplin’s death from a heroin overdose in 1970 at age 27, Davies’ final solo, “Stay With Me,” lacks emotional impact. (It doesn’t help that it recalls that song’s wrenching use in the 1979 Bette Midler film The Rose, a fictionalized drama modeled on Joplin’s life.)
Whatever this tame tribute lacks in scope, it has a considerable saving grace in Davies’ electric renditions of the songs — wild and joyously raucous one minute and ragged with sorrow the next. The best of them is arguably “Piece of My Heart,” which benefits from the performer holding back through the opening stretch to unleash her full hurricane force on that number toward the end of Act One. But devoted fans will feel the frisson of youth coursing through middle-aged veins when they hear any number of songs, among them “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Maybe,” “Ball and Chain,” “Cry Baby,” “A Woman Left Lonely” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Mary Bridget Davies, Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, Nikki Kimbrough
Director-playwright: Randy Johnson
Set & lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Costume designer: Amy Clark
Sound designer: Carl Casella
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Choreographer: Patricia Wilcox
Music director: Ross Seligman
Presented by Daniel Chilewich, Todd Gershwin, Michael Cohl, Jeffrey Jampol, TCG Entertainment, Stephen Tennenbaum, Richard Winkler, Michael J. Moritz Jr./Brunish & Trinchero, Ginger Productions, Claudia Loureiro, Keith Mardak, Ragovoy Entertainment, Bob & Laurie Wolfe/Neil Kahanovitz, Mike Stoller & Corky Hale Stoller, Darren P. DeVerna, Susan DuBow, Tanya Grubich, Jeremiah H. Harris, Jerry Rosenberg/AJ Michaels
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