Mary Bridget Davies’ lifelong Janis Joplin fixation began with a hostile takeover.
“My father owned a video store that did pretty well. Then Blockbuster came to town,” said the 40-year-old Cleveland native, who has played Joplin almost continuously for the last 13 years. You can see her uncanny portrayal in “A Night With Janis Joplin,” a concert musical that opens this weekend at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. “Blockbuster told my dad, ‘We’re gonna buy your inventory and your lease,’” Davies recalled. “It wasn’t much, but he managed to open a coffee shop – a better business, as it turned out.”
Among the castoff flotsam from that abandoned business were “a lot of weird videos they didn’t want,” Davies recalls. “There was this one VHS tape of Joplin in all kinds of situations: snippets of her interviews with Dick Cavett, her performance in Monterey. I watched her and thought, ‘God, it looks like she had fun.”
There was a lot of influential music around the house, too. Her parents loved to spin the Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Joe Cocker and, of course, Joplin.
As Davies made a study of Joplin, she discovered that the passion in her voice came from a painful place. “I learned along the way how cruel the other kids were to her when she was growing up. It took a mental toll on her. I figured out that the boot-stomping part of her personality was a complete front – the persona she called ‘Pearl.’ It was a protective layer she gave herself.
“I remember listening to one of her interviews. She was asked what it was like to grow up in Port Arthur, a very conservative East Texas town. She said, ‘They tell you to wear your hair in a flip and to keep your mouth shut. Well, I was nothing like that.’”
Davies went to see one of the original Joplin imitators in New York the late 1990s. “It was a little club on Bleeker Street. I was a teenager in college. I was amazed. My mom turned to me and asked, ‘Do you think you can do that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’”
Davies was initially cast to play Joplin in 2005, in a musical called “Love Janis” that was based on a book by Joplin’s sister Laura. “That was the start of it all,” Davies said. She has been busy doing Joplin ever since – “my whole adult life.”
Davies’ first audition for the present show was for the understudy role, and she was happy to make the callback. “Our director, Randy Johnson, said, ‘A friend of mine is going to join us. Don’t worry about it.’ Well, a door flies open in in walks Liza Minnelli. While I was doing some jokes in a monologue, Liza leaned over and whispered something in Randy’s ear.” She later found out what Liza had whispered: “That’s your star.”
And opportunity came two months later. The starring Janis wasn’t doing too well. “She made a couple of green mistakes and they asked me to cover for her,” Davis recalled. It was the only break she needed.
“That was in the summer of 2012,” Davies said. “We were in rehearsal on Broadway a year later.” Davies dazzled New York audiences, though the show didn’t quite find its audience on the Great White Way. “We lasted only seven months, but I was pleased with what I’d done.” So were critics. The New York Times heralded her “ebullient personality and raspy tone” and says she “captured the Joplin sound perfectly.” Davies was nominated for a Tony.
Lots of other tours followed Broadway: Canada for three months, a national tour in 2016. The only thing that has slowed her down slightly is motherhood: “I just had a son in November, so this is my first time back. He’s with me right now.”
Davies has discovered that people throughout the country are nostalgic about Joplin and love the show and its warmth. There’s only one place where she has to be extra careful with the portrayal.
“They’re far more discerning in San Francisco. Janis has been gone for quite a long time, so the people who knew her are members of her peer group. At this point, they’re in their 60s or older, and they’re fussy!” But Davies has performed with Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and gotten its unconditional seal of approval for her Janis. “I know what I’m doing at this point.”
In the show we get to meet Joplin’s idols as well: Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James, Odetta and Aretha Franklin. “You can her a lot of them, Etta especially, in the blue notes that Janis chose,” Davies said. James was fierce and introspective, qualities Joplin shared.
Joplin died at 27. What would she have achieved had she lived at least until middle age?
“I honestly believe that she wouldn’t have been able to survive – the coming down, the disconnecting,” Davies said. “She was the first female rock star. That’s a big burden to shoulder. She thought she was already old at 27. That was messing with her a lot; she admitted it in a letter to her family. Not being on top of the world – that wouldn’t have sat well with her.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.