Quite an iconic girl group gathered at the Lyceum Oct. 10 for A Night With Janis Joplin. They came as her backup, The Joplinaires, but they can spin on a dime into all the preceding songstresses who made Janis Joplin what she was during that incredible, bluesy, boozy, three-year comet-ride through rock 'n' roll firmament.
We're taking Odetta, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Etta James — and they are impersonated by accomplished Broadway talents: de'Adre Aziza of Passing Strange, Taprena Michelle Augustine of The Book of Mormon, Allison Blackwell of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and a new girl on the Broadway block named Nikki Kimbrough.
But the major Broadway debut made in this opus is by Mary Bridget Davies, who manages an eerily exact portrayal of Joplin. It's such a visceral facsimile of her in the white-heat of art you fully expect a platoon of stretcher-bearers poised in the wings to transport her on and off the stage between songs. The lady gives it her everything.
She rasps out 21 songs in all — the expected Joplin repertoire — and takes a total of three breaks, leaving the stage unaided (I'm amazed to report). Those starless spots are quickly filled in by those stellar influences and their big golden-oldies. All of this seems to be taking place in a kind of rock 'n' roll free-fall, with a few factual Joplin jottings thrown in from time to time to give the illusion that a bio-musical has happened.
Randy Johnson, who wrote and directed this musical enterprise, explained it all to me after the show at the planet down the block from the Lyceum, Planet Hollywood.
"All of us," he said, "are products of our influences, whether we're in the arts or not, so I realized I could write a story that was about Everyman, through the eyes of Janis. She was one of my influences. The first album I heard when I was five was hers."
Davies, whose Joplin influence approaches an obsession, was no problem to direct, he insisted. "We're actually a great team. She's very directable. We found out how to speak in Janis language together, and we really worked together to create this."
Mary Bridget Davies, Broadway Star, was something the actress was having a little trouble taking in, but she made that special beachhead — and with more standing ovations on her opening night than all four of the Jersey Boys did on theirs.
Although Davies has been doing the role on the road for more than a year, she still had opening-night nerves. "Before the panels opened, I said my prayers to my family and to Janis. I did. I prayed to God and I thanked him for my gifts. I thanked him for this opportunity, and I thank him for Janis. But that wasn't enough. I started getting that anxiety feeling. So I said to myself, 'I'm going to take what you gave me, and I'm going to show these people what I can do.' I gave myself that locker-room pep-talk."
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