Stage depictions of well-known figures face numerous pitfalls as the audience compares what they see with their impressions and recollections of the play’s subject.
In “A Night with Janis Joplin,” that possibility is multiplied six-fold, as the iconic ’60s rocker’s life story is told with the help of the equally revered Aretha Franklin and singers Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone and Odetta.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, McCoy Rigby Entertainment and T&D’s Productions, LLC’s staging of the theatrical biography has two nearly de facto elements that in themselves guarantee success: Randy Johnson’s book, which effectively and compellingly tells Joplin’s life story, and the presence of Mary Bridget Davies, who originated the role in the show’s 2013 production.
With Johnson at the helm as director and Davies as Joplin, “A Night with Janis Joplin” takes off the moment musical director Brent Crayon and his band blast out the show’s first number and keeps us aloft for the entire show.
Johnson’s text cannily packages Joplin’s life story in the form of a concert performance by her at the height of her fame. Having achieved success affords the rocker a chance to share her thoughts and feelings with her audience.
And share she does, starting with her middle-class childhood in Port Arthur, Texas, and her earliest performances while a student at University of Texas, then following her as she heads to San Francisco at age 20 with friend Chet Helms.
It isn’t long before Helms drafts Joplin and her bluesy yet hard-hitting vocal style into the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, where her career began to soar. Early hits included “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Down On Me” and “Ball and Chain,” and with each successive number, the show drives home Joplin’s passion for and commitment to her music.
No show about Janis Joplin, of course, would be complete without “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Cry Baby,” numbers she covered but which she made so thoroughly her own that they became associated with her, and her original songs “Kozmic Blues” and “Mercedes Benz.”
In each of these showcase numbers, Davies personifies Joplin’s explosive, howling, no-holds-barred approach to her every song. A scorching rendition of “Cry Baby” clearly evinces Joplin’s vital, in-the-moment connection with life, and “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” shows Davies’ immersion into Joplin’s trademark ferocious force.
These monumental songs are the heart of “A Night with Janis Joplin,” and they keep the show from bogging down in the nitty-gritty details of the singer’s life. By the same token, Johnson’s outstanding text elevates the show beyond the straightforward goal of re-creating one of her concert performances.
As powerful a factor is the use of great lady blues singers from the past, whose presence delivers concrete illustrations of the trailblazers who most affected Joplin and influenced her style.
As Odetta, Aurianna Angelique delivers a moving, soulful “Down on Me” and, as ’30s great Smith, a jazzy “…Down and Out”; Tawny Dolley a credible James with her 1967 R&B hit “Tell Mama”; and Ashley Támar Davis’ Nina Simone creates bluesy sadness with “Little Girl Blue,” which Joplin tells us is a quintessential blues number.
Only slightly less captivating is Davis’ portrayal of the iconic Franklin as she and Joplin playfully bounce between them their claims as their era’s top lady singer – Franklin as The Queen of Soul, Joplin as The Queen of Rock.
Johnson rounds out the field with two generic characters meant to represent the everyday black woman trying to make her way in life singing the blues: “Blues Woman” (played by Davis), whose plaintive handling of “Summertime” points up Joplin’s early immersion into the music of “Porgy and Bess,” and “Blues Singer,” played by Jennifer Leigh Warren, whose delivery of “Today I Sing the Blues” is a powerful R&B solo delineating how blues music was so clearly rooted in black history and culture.
The show’s design elements by Brian Prather (scenic design), Amy Clark (costumes), Ryan O’Gara (lighting) and Leah Loukas (hair, wigs and makeup) create the illusion that we’re seeing Joplin in a concert setting in her prime.
Crayon and his band’s handling of the score bolsters that authenticity, with particular focus on and kudos to the guitar work of Michael Abraham and Alex Prezzano. Patricia Wilcox’s choreography injects further visual kick to the musical numbers, and Darrel Maloney’s projections give us a glimpse of Joplin the artist in displaying some of her paintings and drawings.
“A Night with Janis Joplin,” though, is essentially Davies’ show. Speaking in the familiar whiskey-soaked voice, her Joplin takes us into her confidence with the candor so integral to her “tell it like it is” credo and her utter devotion to her craft. It’s all here, from the piercing yet husky vocal style to an electrifying stage presence that makes Joplin’s essential humility that much more staggering.
The only area where Davies comes up short is in letting us see the ugly duckling origins that were so much a part of Joplin as a person and a performer. Ebullience is the keyword of her portrayal, showing us how Joplin transcended the self-consciousness born of her unconventional looks.
But that would be carping. So thoroughly does Davies embody the personality, stage presence and vocal style of Janis Joplin that the show is hers. It’s a thrilling, often spellbinding example of the power of live theater to transform today’s performers into those of yesterday.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.