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.
A Night with Janis Joplin, Starring Mary Bridget Davies, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and Cast Party
"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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Davies' favorite moment in the show is not one of hers. "It's watching the girls sing 'I Shall Be Released.' It's so moving, and it's really transitional going into when Janis passed. It's kinda their funeral song for her, and then I come up to sing 'Me and Bobby McGee,' which was released posthumously. As an audience member, that's my favorite part, but really I have way too many favorite moments. I can't say just one as far as performing. I love when I do the scream in 'Piece of My Heart' and the crowd goes crazy, because I've given them what they want. That's all I want to do." A song slated for that last album which Joplin never got around to recording, "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven," has found its way into the show — a gift from songwriter Jerry Ragovoy, who was working on it with her at the time of her death. He caught the show in Portland shortly before his death and volunteered it.
CBS's Gayle King in eye-grabbing red and Johnny Ramone's widow, Linda, led the parade of first-nighters.
Gospel and R&B singer BeBe Winans was present to support producers Todd Gershwin and Daniell Chilewich, who will next produce a musical about BeBe Winans and his sister CeCe and their transition called Where We Belong. "But I'm here also as a fan of great singers, and Janis was one of the greatest."
The featured bachelor nine seasons ago on ABC's "The Bachelor" (and still unhitched), Prince Lorenzo Borghese said he's starting to shoot a new but right-now-unnamed reality TV show in November.
Palling with producers Michael and Shelley Cohl, Amy Irving promised she's returning to the boards next month: "At the Signature, I'm in Martha Clarke's new show." Mary McBride and Passing Strange's Heidi Rodewald said they're collaborating on a new musical piece while Rodewald finishes up The Good Swimmer and something called The Total Bent for The Public Theater that will open next September.
The great R&R songwriter Mike Stoller, arriving with wife Corky Hale, relayed his brief brush with Joplin: "Right after she did 'Ball and Chain,' there was a chance she was going to do 'Hound Dog.' Jerry and I wrote it for Big Mama Thornton long before Presley got ahold of it. It didn't happen, but I still loved what she did. I saw this show in Pasadena and loved it so much we're producers!"
Melissa van der Schyff and Claybourne Elder, who rode with Broadway's Bonnie and Clyde (in the backseat as Blanche and Buck Barrow), continue to be an opening-night twosome well after their show has closed. He has acquired extra wives, and she has acquired extra lives. "I'm off to Provincetown next week to workshop Sybil: The Musical," said she. "It's like 15 roles in one role. You can't go wrong. And Liz Callaway is playing the doctor opposite me." He's starring Oct. 28 at York Theatre in Six Wives, a new musical by Joe Masteroff and Edward Thomas, along with Nick Wyman, Judy Kaye, Alexandra Silber and, as Henry VIII, Alexander Gemignani.