A Night With Janis Joplin

  • Our critic's rating:
    October 1, 2013

    In “A Night with Janis Joplin” you see dead people quite a lot. The conceit of the script is Joplin, on stage singing her heart out, with pauses to tell you about the amazing women who shaped her music: Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Odetta, Etta James and Aretha.

    These apparitions appear before us all over the remarkably fluid set from Justin Townsend. Taprena Michelle Augustine gives us Bessie Smith, De’Adre Aziza offers an imposing Odetta and a dead-on Nina Simone, and Nikki Kimbrough styles Etta James. These lively women also conjure the Chantels, the seminal girl group from the Bronx. There are soaring voices and homages. There is significant strutting and singing. But there is no development.

    This night with Janis Joplin at the Lyceum on 45th Street is a rock concert replete with unrelenting pounding bass and psychedelic light. It is music in a Broadway theater but certainly not a Broadway musical. That point was brought home throughout act one as the enormously talented Mary Bridget Davies, channeling Joplin, urged a rather demure audience to get into it ‘man.’ Davies is very compelling as the gifted and, in this version, not so damaged, Joplin. But watching the actor struggle to maintain the illusion of a rock concert’s rowdy exchanges with a Playbill-grasping, way too sober crowd was uncomfortable.

    The first act closer offers relief. Allison Blackwell, one of four additional singers, conjures Aretha Franklin. The “queen of soul” insists the white-bread audience stand up and get into it; and they do their best.

    In the end, there were too many songs that were the same - noisy and urgent and true to our memory - but oddly the same. The musicians blared away with distinction; again, music in a Broadway house, but a concert not a musical. Ross Seligman and Stephen Flakus on guitar, Patrick Harry on bass, Tyler Evans on keyboard, Mitch Wilson on drums and the brass men, John Scarpulla on sax, Craig Taylor on trumpet and Michael Boscarino on trombone light up the stage with authentic music and credible impersonations of cool band guys.

    Davies does “Me and Bobby McGee.” She does “Piece of My Heart.” She does “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven” a couple of times. And just when we think she is not going to do the only Joplin song I actually know the words to, she hauls out “Mercedes Benz.” I had good seats, and I could believe it was Janis.

    This impersonation demands more than Holland Taylor‘s doppelganger rendition of Ann Richards, as Richards’ crackle was not in song. The two performances share a jaw dropping accuracy; a spot-on capture of the original. Each production, however, is a one-trick-pony.

    “A Night with Janis Joplin” has a rather complicated performance schedule until it steadies up November 4th. It is notable that all of these remarkable musicians can manage two performances on matinee days and that they manage that beautifully three times a week.

    "Mary Bridget Davies, whose positively uncanny vocal impersonation of Joplin keeps the house rocking for much of the show’s running time"
    Charles Isherwood for New York Times

    "Where the script goes irritatingly wrong is Joplin’s near-lecturing on the blues. ... Better to let the music do the talking.
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "A power-piped but sanitized Joplin (Davies) who’d be perfectly at home on a cruise ship."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "If you’re a Joplin aficionado, you’ll probably enjoy the show for Davies’ singing, and be able to overlook the shortcomings. If you’re not a fan, keep walking."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "The music's the thing here, and that's not likely to disappoint."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Whatever this tame tribute lacks in scope, it has a considerable saving grace in Davies’ electric renditions of the songs."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "As a musical biography, [its] pretty much a bust. .. But as a concert .., the show is something else."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - The Record - Hollywood Reporter - Variety