Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler gets trippy at the powerhouse production of A Night with Janis Joplin.
There are voices, then there are voices that define a generation. Janis Joplin was the latter, bulldozing into the late 60s music scene with her raspy through-the-rafters rock vocals. Her death on October 4, 1970 (less than a month after Jimi Hendrix) cut short a prolific career that left us with such soul-wrenching recordings including “Piece of My Heart,” “My Baby,” and “Kozmic Blue,” among others. Much of A Night with Janis Joplin, which opened last night at the Lyceum Theatre, explores Joplin’s relationship with the blues.
Early influences from Odetta and Bessie Smith to Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin in later years, helped define Joplin’s signature style. And what a style that was. Mary Bridget Davies, who tackles a marathon of the Joplin songbook, shakes the theater to its core with visceral vocals that bleed raw emotion.
The chronological script by Randy Johnson (who also directs) follows Joplin’s influences from her early days in Port Arthur, Texas to her 1969 studio album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Sprinkled with ramblings about family, men and music, Joplin sums it up best when she says, “It is the want of something that gives you the blues.”
Davies portrays that “want” with rapturous abandonment when singing, though the aforementioned monologues feel like a small leak in a bucket overflowing with love juice. But when Davies opens her mouth (and heart) to not only interpret, but embody Joplin’s music, it is nothing short of transformative.
It would take a miracle to assemble a supporting cast to hold their own, but that is exactly what casting director Laura Stanczyk manages to do. Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’ Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell and Nikki Kimbrough each have their moments in the spotlight as the aforementioned African American singers who had such poignant influence on Joplin’s style. They also know when to pull in the reigns as the Joplinaires and allow Davies to shine center stage while tightly executing Patricia Wilcox’s spot-on choreography, which gratefully serves the material without overpowering it.
As A Night with Janis Joplin comes to an end, Davies sings “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.” One can only hope that Joplin herself is looking down from above, perched on a psychedelic cloud and gleefully smirking at the party down below.
A Night with Janis Joplin
149 West 45th Street