By: David Sheward
Gee, that Janis Joplin was a nice kid. That bland and incongruous statement about the troubled, sandpaper-voiced vocalist seems to be the subtext of A Night With Janis Joplin, the latest jukebox tribute to a rock icon to reach Broadway. Sanctioned by the late singer’s estate, Joplin concentrates on her intense performances and downplays her troubled, booze-and-drug-fueled offstage life, which ended with an overdose at age 27. A hybrid of concert re-creation and half-hearted bio, the book by Randy Johnson-who also perfunctorily directed-has Joplin belt out all of her signature tunes, reveal scraps of childhood and early adult memories, and make a few vague aphorisms about music in general and the blues in particular ("Music is everything, man."
"People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers to be alone.") The most we learn about her nonsinging life is that she loved her mother and siblings; painted a lot; sang Broadway show tunes while cleaning her home in Port Arthur, Texas; and left there for San Francisco to pursue her rock and blues dreams as soon as she could. The demons that drove her to an early death are not even touched upon.
Fortunately, the title character is played by the amazing Mary Bridget Davies, who sounds remarkably like her subject and recaptures the volcanic emotional power of such classics as "Me and Bobby McGee" and "A Piece of My Heart." In between Davies’s solos and monologues, a quartet of supremely talented singers who play a backup group, the Joplinaires, double as iconic warblers who served as Joplin’s inspiration and influences. Taprena Michelle Augustine is a gritty Bessie Smith, De’Adre Aziza channels the smooth tones of Odetta and Nina Simone, Allison Blackwell makes for a dynamic Aretha Franklin, and Nikki Kimbrough is a sassy Etta James. (One weird choice: Playing "Good King Wenceslas" as an intro to Rodgers and Hart’s "Little Girl Blue" left me baffled. Is it supposed to be Christmas?)
To be fair, Joplin does not purport to be full-fledged portrait. It only seeks to provide Joplin fans with a reasonable facsimile of her oceanic talent; and thanks to the dynamic Davies, a supercharged band, and music director Ross Seligman, it delivers. At the performance attended, baby boomers and youngsters alike rocked, screamed, and pumped their fists as it we were all in a marvelously seedy club in the late ’60s. If that’s your vibe, groove to it, baby.
Opened Oct. 10 for an open run. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. $28-140. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com