Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin. | JOAN MARCUS
Brash, soulful Janis Joplin has been lionized as “The Queen of Rock ’n Roll” and lamented as a blazing comet that flamed out way too soon. This supremely talented, middle-class “white chick singing the blues” shot to fame in the late 1960s and died in 1970 of an unintended heroin overdose. She was only 27 years old.
“A Night With Janis Joplin” attempts to recapture this legendary lightning in a bottle, showcasing her distinctive, raspy-toned vocals and musical influences, which included the likes of Etta James, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and even Broadway show tunes.
But if you’re looking for a traditional Broadway musical — you know, with plot, character development, or dramatic arc of any kind — you won’t find it onstage at the Lyceum Theatre. Under the direction of Randy Johnson (who also wrote the piece), what we have here is an eclectic, electrifying concert featuring special guests and extended patter between numbers.
Mind-blowing trip with Janis Joplin doesn’t quite let it all hang out
Not that it’s such a bad thing. Mary Bridget Davies delivers goose bump-generating, heart-shattering, powerhouse vocals, channeling the legendary singer with an epic ferocity and adding grace notes of vulnerability.
If Davies seems pitch-perfect, that’s partly because she’s had plenty of practice, embodying Joplin in the regional tour of this production and another musical tribute, “Love, Janis,” that toured the US some years back. What’s more, she actually fronted a reboot of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the acid rock band that gave Joplin her big break (some say it was the other way around). A paragon of anti-pretention, Janis loved to “tell it like it is” and Davies nails that quality with gritty panache.
“People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers miserable,” muses Joplin. “They like their blues singers to die.”
The role is so punishing that a second performer (Kacee Clanton) takes over for the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.
Davies is hardly the only talent onstage. Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell, and Nikki Kimbrough not only play the backup singers (called the Joplinaires) but also impersonate the trailblazing artists who influenced Joplin. While each enjoys at least one fabulous moment in the spotlight, the stunning Augustine stands apart as the Blues Singer who belts out “Today I Sing the Blues,” rivaling any of Joplin’s numbers.
The sensational band, comprised of eight boisterous musicians in period garb, remains prominently onstage for the entire show. The far-out costumes, by Amy Clark, efficiently evoke the groovy, hippie style of the 1960’s. Bell bottoms, crushed velvet, and Afros abound.
Sad to say, there are problems beyond the lack of a proper book. At times the eager-to-please show tries, as one of Joplin’s hit songs goes, “a little bit harder” to rouse the audience to stand up and sing along. Perhaps a little too hard.
The set and lighting, designed by Justin Townsend, is a rather unappealing mishmash of styles, featuring a backdrop of flashing video screens (showing the obligatory images of faded family photos and psychedelic color blobs) and all manner of light fixtures (fluorescent rods, giant Edison-type bulbs, and a couple dozen table lamps with funky shades). It’s a visual assault that’s all the more jarring in contrast to the elegantly restored Beaux Arts architecture of the Lyceum.
Over the course of two hours and 15 minutes, the self-professed misfit beatnik shares anecdotes about learning to love music from her mother, creating paintings, her identification with Zelda Fitzgerald, a desire to leave her Port Arthur, Texas home to attempt a singing career in San Francisco, and her addiction to adulation — all inflected with the can-you-dig-it lingo of the day.
“A Night with Janis Joplin” is hardly a full-fledged bio-musical, considering so many key facts were left out (how could they not mention Woodstock?). Even if she refers to the desire to get stoned and get laid and takes a swig from a bottle now and again, the show feels sanitized for Broadway audiences. It carefully dances around her untimely death, never daring to mention “heroin” or “smack.”
Clearly her doting family’s fingerprints are all over this production.
Still, Joplin’s trademark guttural wails telegraph the story of pain and joy as effectively as any heavily plotted musical. Perhaps her feelings can best be distilled in a stanza from one of the final ballads, “Stay With Me:”
When I gave you,
I gave so very much
How come I got back
so very much less.
After Blackwell delivers the famous, fluttering Gershwin “Porgy and Bess” aria “Summertime,” Davies belts out her raw rendition, in all its screechy, pock-marked splendor. Despite a muddled production, it emerges as pure musical magic.
A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN | Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$140; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200