One Night with Janis Joplin - I have been going to the theater for over 40 years and still regularly attend many different performances throughout the year put on by many different companies. And although I am happy to expand my blog into covering additional events in the artistic world of DC, this play is a perfect for this blog as it has the full feel of a rock show.
The one night with Janis Joplin is simply Janis belting out her songs with some explanation of her life and influences as she comfortably interacts with the audience. There is precious little time spent on childhood trauma, the hippie scene, or psychological issues. Instead, it is more focused on her songs and the influential songs of the past and of her contemporaries. And that is a big success of this play as these influences are brought to life by a second actress/singer who handles Arethra Franklin, Odetta, and Bessie Smith among others.
Mary Bridget Davies nails Janis Joplin in body language, style, and of course, voice. She keeps everything conversational and upbeat and really manages to pull the audience in. The songs are powerful and as she told me in an interview, she takes care to present a song like "Piece of my Heart" in the exact manner of the known Janis Jopliin version. But she will then roll out "Ball and Chain" with whatever unpredictable and unbridled passion she can summon up. She maintains great energy throughout this active performance where she only gets the benefit of one intermission and a few short breaks off stage. She delivers the famous screams as well as the tender moments with great effect which really helps give a depth and diversity to the music.
And speaking of diversity, the key to the success of this play may be in the second singer known as 'Blues Singer' played by Sabrina Elayne Carten. It allows further diversity of musical style, yet as the songs are Joplin influences, is fully tied in to the overall theme. Ms. Carten's operatic voice is amazing and she gets to really have fun with her range as she gets to play different singers from different eras and genres. I particularly liked her Odetta piece where her costume and expression had me instantly feeling Odetta before she sang a note. The Arethra Franklin song that Janis Joplin joins in on was one of the real show stoppers. This character from writer/director Randy Johnson really creates an exciting flow of the overall production.
Rounding things out are three backup singers and a nine piece band. The band does a fabulous job with a great psychedelic vibe and heavy rock moves, but can shift immediately into blues rock, R&B, and lounge style blues. They all get to show off solos and along with the rhythm section, two guitars, and keys, there are a couple of trumpets and a sax. They play loud, but not deafeningly so which helps pull in a full audience of rock fans as well as musical theater lovers who know little of the difference between Big Brother and Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues Band. The stage is simple and clean, but with stairs leading to a platform and a fancy scrim/projection screen, there are a lot of thoughtful embellishments tastefully employed. Psychedelic lights are also only briefly employed, as the stage belongs to the musicians and singers.
This was enjoyable the whole way through with its breezy positive spirit. The surprisingly enthusiastic audience was fully engaged and was having much more fun than many of the rock audiences I see in clubland. By all means, head over to the Arena Stage for this excellent production.