Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: A Night with Janis Joplin is a Night to Remember

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin and the company of
A Night with Janis Joplin. Photo by Joan Marcus

Baby boomers don’t normally show their approval at the theater by leaping to their feet and giving standing ovations during a performance… unless they happen to be seeing A Night with Janis Joplin at Pasadena Playhouse. The power of remembrance combined with the powerhouse performances of Mary Bridget Davies (as Janis Joplin) and her crew – four dynamic supporting female vocalists and an eight piece kickass rock band – prove that the Queen of Rock ‘n Roll can still conjure up a revolution in the hearts of her fans and get them on their feet in spite of themselves.   

A hard-rocking Janis Joplin packed everything she had into 27 short years of making music before drugs and hard living claimed her life. “None of us are who we started out to be,” says Davies as the iconic artist at the top of the show, but as music drove Joplin forward through the deeply felt anguish of the blues, she reached a point where she acknowledged that whatever came next, she’d had her say.

The original version of the musical played the Playhouse in 2013 under another title, before the show was reworked and went to Broadway. I didn’t see that incarnation of the show but I’m told, in addition to featuring the music, it also showed more of the downside of Joplin’s life, including her addiction to drugs and alcohol. That doesn’t appear in this musical tribute. Instead, writer & director Randy Johnson’s current production winds its way through Joplin’s catalogue of music amid stories of the women who influenced her. And while I noticed that part of the story was missing, I didn’t miss it. It was enough for me to celebrate her music and hear her talk about her blues muses.

Each of them is played by one of the four supporting singers: Jenelle Lynn Randall as a feisty Etta James; Sylvia MacCalla as Odetta, and the incomparable Bessie Smith; Yvette Cason as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone; and Sharon Catherine Brown as that incredible nameless Blues Singer who paved the way for them all. They capture the essence of each musical icon and turn in some wonderful performances. Brown’s Blues Singer wrenches the blues up from her guts, giving an unforgettable vocal performance that just about steals the whole show.

L-R: Yvette Cason, Jenelle Lynn Randall, Sylvia MacCalla and
Sharon Catherine Brown. Photo by Earl Gibson III. 

Davies relates the stories intimately and honestly, often following up a song by one of her role models with her own Joplinized version. These are golden moments, the kind that give you shivers to see how she translates the emotion into her adaptation of the song. “Bessie Smith showed me the air and taught me how to fill it,” she says with deep respect in her voice. Her mother, a lover of music theatre, taught her to understand the blues. Of Nina Simone, “She put everything into the song she was feeling at the time.” And of the blues in general, “Blues are so subtle. You can milk it with two notes.” 

Act I is Joplin on the rise from Port Arthur, Texas, to hooking up with Big Brother and the Holding Company to singing with Aretha. The tone turns a bit darker in Act II but Davies’ energy keeps barreling on through to the feverish high point of “Ball and Chain” which elicited crazy screams and a standing ovation from the crowd. Rightfully so. No wonder she received a Tony nomination on Broadway. Davies is a singular artist with an uncanny ability to channel Janis Joplin’s unique sound. As a musical experience, the show exceeded all my expectations. Go. It’s a helluva night!


A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN
Extended through August 23, 2015

Pasadena Playhouse
39 South El Molino Avenue
Pasadena CA 91101
Tickets: www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Mary Bridget Davies performs the role of Janis Joplin Tuesday - Friday evenings at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm
Kacee Clanton performs the role of Janis Joplin on Saturdays at 4:00 pm and Sunday Evenings at 7:00 pm

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